Term Limits can not fix the loss of trust in politicians in the US, or in any representative democracy. Part I

Many Americans, frustrated or disillusioned with how the US Government functions, are asking for term limits for their elected representatives and judges, just like there are term limits for the President of the United States.

There are several organisations fighting for term limits. There are also many established institutions opposing term limits. I suppose most elected politicians are not keen on term limits and that aspiring politicians are.

The term limits movement in the US has failed at the Federal level, but it has had some success at the state level. Because of that, I was curious about the impact of term limits on some important indicators of government performance.

I am focusing on the US for several reasons; it is a country most of the world knows about, the term limits movement is quite active and, in many ways, what happens in the US, good or bad, and for good or bad, is a reference for many other societies.

Let us look at the information we have.

States with term limits for the legislators in the United States. I took this data were from Ballotpedia

As of 2018, 15 US states had term limits for their House (H) and the Senate (S), (the lower and upper chambers).

Alabama                    No term limits

Alaska                        No term limits

Arizona                      H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 4 terms (8 years)

Arkansas                   16 year cumulative total, in either or both

California                  12 year cumulative total, in either or both

Colorado                    H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 2 terms (8 years)

Connecticut              No term limits

Delaware                   No term limits

Florida                        H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 2 terms (8 years)

Georgia                      No term limits

Hawaii                        No term limits

Idaho                          No term limits

Illinois                        No term limits

Indiana                      No term limits

Iowa                            No term limits

Kansas                      No term limits

Kentucky                  No term limits

Louisiana                  H: 3 terms (12 years) S: 3 terms (12 years)

Maine                         No term limits

Maryland                  No term limits

Massachusetts     H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 4 terms (8 years)

Michigan                   H: 3 terms (6 years) S: 2 terms (8 years)

Minnesota                No term limits

Mississippi               No term limits

Missouri                    H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 2 terms (8 years)

Montana                   H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 2 terms (8 years)

Nebraska                 S: 2 terms (8 years)

Nevada                     H: 6 terms (12 years) S: 3 terms (12 years)

New Hampshire   No term limits

New Jersey            No term limits

New Mexico           No term limits

New York                 No term limits

North Carolina       No term limits

North Dakota         No term limits

Ohio                           H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 2 terms (8 years)

Oklahoma               12 year cumulative total, in either or both

Oregon                     No term limits

Pennsylvania         No term limits

Rhode Island          No term limits

South Carolina       No term limits

South Dakota          H: 4 terms (8 years) S: 4 terms (8 years)

Tennessee                No term limits

Texas                           No term limits

Utah                             No term limits

Vermont                    No term limits

Virginia                      No term limits

Washington            No term limits

West Virginia         No term limits

Wisconsin               No term limits

Wyoming                 No term limits

Let us now look at the public debt per person of individual states, to see if it looks like term limits promote responsible public expenditures.

I took the data from worldpopulationreview.com

State                               Debt PP         Does it have term limits for legislators?

  1. Massachusetts      $11,043           Yes
  2. Connecticut             $10,877          No
  3. Rhode Island           $8,457             No
  4. Alaska                         $8,068            No
  5. New Jersey               $7,371              No
  6. New York                   $7,162              No
  7. Hawaii                         $6,835             No
  8. New Hampshire     $5,644             No
  9. Vermont                     $5,577             No
  10. Illinois                          $4,883             No
  11. Delaware                   $4,641              No
  12. Maryland                   $4,607              No
  13. Washington             $4,287               No
  14. West Virginia          $4,244               No
  15. Wisconsin                $3,974               No
  16. South Dakota         $3,907               Yes
  17. Louisiana                  $3,895               Yes
  18. California                  $3,825               Yes
  19. North Dakota         $3,788                No
  20. Pennsylvania          $3,706                No
  21. Maine                         $3,530                No
  22. New Mexico            $3,366               No
  23. Michigan                   $3,331                Yes
  24. Indiana                       $3,238               No
  25. Virginia                      $3,226                No
  26. Kentucky                  $3,201                No
  27. South Carolina      $3,022                No
  28. Missouri                   $2,986                Yes
  29. Oregon                     $2,943                No
  30. Colorado                 $2,905                Yes
  31. Minnesota              $2,870                No
  32. Ohio                           $2,851                Yes
  33. Kansas                     $2,590                No
  34. Montana                   $2,572               Yes
  35. Mississippi             $2,499                No
  36. Utah                          $2,271                  No
  37. Oklahoma              $2,138                  Yes
  38. Arizona                    $1,937                  Yes
  39. Iowa                          $1,934                  No
  40. Idaho                        $1,845                  No
  41. Alabama                 $1,787                  No
  42. Texas                        $1,729                  No
  43. Arkansas                $1,580                 Yes
  44. North Carolina     $1,537                 No
  45. Wyoming               $1,357                 No
  46. Florida                     $1,311                  Yes
  47. Georgia                   $1,216                  No
  48. Nevada                   $1,035                 Yes
  49. Nebraska               $1,032                 Yes
  50. Tennessee            $888                    No

 You can draw your own conclusions, but I am not sure that term limits make a significant difference, at least in the control of public debt.

Massachusetts has not benefited from term limits, but perhaps the next 15 states would have performed better if they had term limits. As I continue down the list, I see many states with no term limits outperforming many with term limits.

My impression is that term limits may help, but are not decisive to control public debt.

Let us look at public approval of the legislature to see if term limits make a difference.

There is an interesting Master thesis by John W Downs III Scholarworks at Indiana University.

The thesis investigated if there is a correlation between term limits for legislators of US states and the public approval ratings of legislators. The conclusion of the thesis is that there is a correlation.

But I am not sure public approval is a meaningful indicator of sound management. I say that because in representative democracies, where one important goal of politicians is to get re-elected, (even states with term limits allow between 1 and 5 re-elections), politicians have learned to please voters to get re-elected.

When the politician can not run again for the same position, he or she will run for another one; as far as I know, no state bans politicians to run again for another position. This means that always politicians have a powerful motivation to please voters for the short term.

If politicians leave politics after their last term in office, the political parties have the same incentive as before to please voters, so that the new candidate “re-elects” the party.

I was also curious about unemployment rates and term limits. I wanted to see if term limits promote better government, perhaps it would show lower unemployment figures for states with term limits.

Here are the unemployment rates of US states as of October 2020. I took the data from the US Government; https://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm

State                                         Rate                Term Limits (Legislatures)

  1. Nebraska                              3.0                   Yes
  2. Vermont                                3.2                    No
  3. Iowa                                         3.6                   No
  4. South Dakota                     3.6                   Yes
  5. Utah                                        4.1                     No
  6. New Hampshire                4.2                    No
  7. South Carolina                   4.2                    No
  8. Georgia                                 4.5                     No
  9. Minnesota                            4.6                    No
  10. Missouri                                4.6                    Yes
  11. North Dakota                     4.8                     No
  12. Montana                               4.9                     Yes
  13. Indiana                                   5.0                    No
  14. Kansas                                   5.3                     No
  15. Virginia                                  5.3                     No
  16. Maine                                     5.4                     Yes
  17. Idaho                                      5.5                     No
  18. Michigan                              5.5                     Yes
  19. Wyoming                             5.5                     No
  20. Delaware                             5.6                     No
  21. Ohio                                       5.6                     Yes
  22. Wisconsin                           5.7                     No
  23. Alabama                              5.8                     No
  24. Alaska                                   5.9                     No
  25. Washington                       6.0                     No
  26. Connecticut                       6.1                      No
  27. Oklahoma                           6.1                      Yes
  28. Arkansas                             6.2                     Yes
  29. North Carolina                  6.3                     No
  30. Colorado                              6.4                    Yes
  31. West Virginia                     6.4                    No
  32. Florida                                   6.5                    Yes
  33. Illinois                                    6.8                     No
  34. Oregon                                  6.9                     No
  35. Texas                                      6.9                     No
  36. Rhode Island                      7.0                     No
  37. Pennsylvania                      7.3                     No
  38. Kentucky                              7.4                     No
  39. Massachusetts                 7.4                     No
  40. Mississippi                           7.4                    No
  41. Tennessee                           7.4                    No
  42. Maryland                              7.8                     No
  43. Arizona                                  8.0                    Yes
  44. New Mexico                        8.1                     No
  45. New Jersey                          8.2                    No
  46. California                              9.3                    Yes
  47. Louisiana                              9.4                    Yes
  48. New York                              9.6                    No
  49. Nevada                                 12.0                   Yes
  50. Hawaii                                   14.3                   No

I am not a statistician, an economist, a sociologist, a meteorologist, a soils expert, etc., all rolled into one, to know if  unemployment figures have anything to do with term limits or with something else, but it seems term limits are not a decisive factor to determine unemployment levels.

My next blog I will look at term limits for governors.

I will also try to show that the root problem in the US, and other representative democracies, is not the lack of term limits, it is the limits by representative democracy on the power of voters.


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