The United States of America, since its founding in 1776, has paved the way for political innovation and development around the globe. The United States (U.S.) and the many framers that contributed to its success emphasized individual rights and liberties. These have been the building blocks of our democratic republic. While the U.S. is one of the most successful nations in history there is plenty that could be improved. We the people, call on elected officials to implement policy and write laws in the hopes that we will see some sort of benefit. These benefits can vary from better roadways to lower taxes. However, it seems like our legislative branch rarely gets things done.
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If you were to turn on the news right now and look at the many faces on the intelligence committee or look just at the headlines, chances are you will recognize most of the names. These are names such as Pelosi, Biden, and McConnell. This is because of the recent development of the congressional career. Many politicians are staying in congress longer which has caused some concern among voters. Joe Biden for example, held a Delaware senate seat from 1972-2009, serving 37 years as a senator. He would later serve two terms, under President Obama, as the Vice President of the United States from 2009-2017 and is currently running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 Presidential election. While both generational changes and life-cycle effects shifted public opinion during these 37 years, it is not very likely that Biden’s political ideology shifted as rapidly and radically. This aspect of congressional membership is important to understand because of the influence they have on shaping and dictating policy.
Joe Biden is not the only member of congress that is seen to have had a stronghold on his seat. This has become more and more prevalent within our legislative branch. This prompts the question of the potential introduction of term limits on the federal level. As of now, term limits are typically only seen in the executive branch, which is a two-term maximum for the Presidency and in state legislative branches. I will first discuss how congressional membership evolved into a career and how this has affected policy and law-making. I will then be examining the potential effects term limits have on the legislative branch both on the federal level and the state level. How has the development of the congressional career impacted productivity in congress and will the introduction of term limits positively or negatively influence productivity?
Development of the Congressional Career
The congressional career is relatively new in American politics. The U.S. has only really seen one generation of life long politicians. This generation is still in power today and their presence is felt in almost all things political. Yet, some are beginning to feel the pressure for the demand of younger congressional members. This demand comes from the idea that older members of congress are no longer in touch with the youth and public opinion. But, as the presence of older generations diminishes it opens up the question, will we see the same presence of lifetime politicians in the future?
The congressional career in the early 19th century was not nearly as long as what we are now accustomed to. As Wilhelm and Glassman (2013) argue, it was only towards the end of the 19th century and through the 20th, that the length of congressional terms began to steadily rise. They examined trends in both the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Wilhelm and Glassman specified two significant factors that contributed to the increased length of congressional careers. The first being, the rate of members seeking re-election and the second being, the success of re-election campaigns. They observed declines in both the number of members not seeking re-election and the number of re-election campaigns lost. These two factors directly result in long political careers.
In the United States' first 100 years, members of Congress saw the government as a hassle and something of not much importance. Wilhelm and Glassman (2013) describe congressmen then as “citizen-legislators”, who generally held full-time jobs outside of Congress. They cite H. Douglas Price, as arguing the lack of incentives for members of congress is what caused the short congressional careers. They also state restructuring of the legislative branch post-Civil War, led to incentives and institutional changes such as a seniority system, the committee system and the ability for members to generate publicity, as reasons for the newfound interest in keeping congressional seats (Wilhelm & Glassman 2013). These incentives have expanded far beyond seniority and committee membership. Being a member of congress now, one is seen as a higher-ranking member of society. It is also now viewed as an incredibly important position, much different than first held views on this branch of the government.
Congressional terms before the 20th century, were on average three years in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the United States last 100 years, the average has increased to around nine years in the House and around ten years in the Senate (Wilhelm & Glassman 2013). With this growth in congressional experience, it is easy to assume that members would be able to communicate and negotiate effectively to enact policy and pass laws. However, it is difficult to determine what “effectively” means when trying to understand legislative productivity.
In this paper, I will be using Grant and Kelly’s (2007) measurement of legislative productivity. Their measurement of productivity is the combination of measuring a Legislative Productivity Index (LPI) which is described as “general lawmaking” and Major Legislation Index (MLI) which is described as “important lawmaking”. Grant and Kelly (2007) describe these measurements as the product of applying Stimson’s (1999) W-CALC algorithm with previous indicators of legislative productivity.
Using these methods Grant and Kelly (2007) can generate an idea of legislative productivity that includes all congressional history. These findings can be used to compare and determine levels of congressional productivity with the introduction of congressional careers as well as the lack thereof. Grant and Kelly argue that there was relatively low productivity in congress up until the start of the Civil War. This period resulted in the rapid introduction of new and changing laws. Much like Wilhelm and Glassman (2013), Grant and Kelly (2007) also concluded that the legislative branch received a massive overhaul post-Civil War, in which its powers and membership activity steadily increased.
According to calculations using LPI and MLI, congressional productivity has been in decline since 1960 (Grant & Kelly, 2007). These findings seem to coincide with the introduction of congressional careers in the legislative branch. This source appears to provide support for the notion that congressional careers are preventing Congress from implementing policy and passing laws as effectively as before. Examining the research of both Grant and Kelly (2007) along with Wilhelm and Glassman (2013) has provided evidence to question the implementation of term limits and their impact on congressional productivity.
Congressional term limits have been proposed as recently as 1995 in the Supreme Court case U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thorton, in which they ruled term limits were unconstitutional. The case concluded that states cannot set further qualifications beyond the ones explicitly outlined in the Constitution, these are the minimum age requirement, citizenship, and state residency. A poll conducted around the same time as the ruling indicated 73% of Americans supported the introduction of congressional term limits (Hans 2013). States such as Colorado and Arkansas were at the forefront of the movement advocating for these limits.
In 1990, Colorado proposed term limits for both state and federal officials (Barnicle 1992). Voters in Colorado would later vote to implement these term limits at both levels of government. This decision sparked a nationwide campaign in support of term limits. Barnicle (1992) argues that the overwhelming support for term limits cannot be enacted through voter initiatives and if enacted at all it must be done so through a Constitutional Amendment. As term limit legislation was gradually being passed around the country, it came under a microscope and would come to an end in Arkansas.
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In 1993, Arkansas passed Amendment 73, section three of this amendment attempted to implement a limit on the number of times a person could be elected to state office. Amendment 73 was immediately opposed and brought to the Arkansas State Supreme Court who determined section three to be unconstitutional. This ruling was eventually petitioned by both U.S. Term Limits, Inc. and the Arkansas Attorney General Bryant for writs of certiorari (Hans 2013). The United States Supreme Court would uphold the previous ruling by Arkansas’s Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
In early American history, the federal government while small and with no real power had term limits for state representatives. Barnicle (1992) argues that the term limits in early founding documents caused instability and corruption as it prevented re-election for qualified individuals. Eventually, state representatives were part of the “non-elite” and seen as unqualified to hold these positions. This prompted the removal of all term limits for state representatives. As well as the removal of term limits from documents such as the Virginia Plan and the Qualifications Clause (Barnicle 1992).
The Supreme Court case, U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thorton, challenged federal term limits directly and ultimately determined that it is the right of the people to vote for who they want in office. While this is a strong argument based around Constitutional originalism, Elhauge, Lott Jr. and Manning (1997) argue that term limits should be encouraged. The expansion of power and resources present in politics today provides incumbents with numerous advantages over their challengers. Elhauge, Lott Jr. and Manning (1997) state, implementing term limits would reduce the presence of these disadvantages and promote diversity.
However, unlike the federal level, most state legislatures are subject to term limits many of which differ from state to state. California was one of the first states to introduce limits at the state level and by 2010 a total of 36 states were planning or had introduced a similar policy. Carey et. al. (2006) say that state legislators, behavior in office changes depending on whether or not they have term limits. Carey argues as a legislator gets closer to the end of their term productivity goes down. Legislator's campaign and fundraising slow down as well as their communication with their constituents (Corey et. al. 2006). State legislators no longer feel the need to bring back “pork” to their districts as the benefit of getting re-elected has been limited. This suggests that productivity decreases with the introduction of term limits.
Carey, Niemi, and Powell (1998) showed that behavior in state legislation is partially dependent on whether or not term limits are in place. Herrick and Thomas (2005) examined term limits and there influence on political motivations even further. Herrick and Thomas (2005) did so by conducting a mail survey in 15 states around the U.S. (Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington). Their survey found legislators who were term-limited, were generally more motivated and less influenced by personal goals. These legislators typically run on specific sets of policy issues. Herrick and Thomas (2005) reference Allebaugh and Pinney (2003) who are quoted as arguing the following:
“Thus, proponents of term limits argue that the mandatory prohibition of legislators from seeking reelection is likely to dramatically increase the competition in elections and provide voters with a more diverse and appealing selection of candidates” (Allebaugh and Pinney 2003, 161).
With 36 states having term limitations in their state legislature, and if we accept Allebaugh and Pinney’s (2003) notion that term limits would result in more diverse and appealing candidates, we can conclude that term limits on the state level have positively benefited most of the U.S.
However, while this does show there is more motivated representation in state legislation than in Congress, there is no data that suggest this would work on the national scale. Issues differ between state and federal legislative branches, as the federal branch deals with bigger, broader and most of the time, more divisive and controversial issues.
In conclusion, the birth of the congressional career seems to have had a negative impact on productivity in Congress. Wilhelm and Glassman’s (2013) conclusions about the development of the congressional career are supported by Grant and Kelly’s (2008) quantitative analysis of congressional productivity. However, Grant and Kelly’s methodology is still to be questioned and challenged. Defining success in Congress seems subjective and not an objective fact like some claim. Amendments have been proposed to implement term limits to counter the dominance of select individuals in Congress but no such initiative has been passed. Barnicle (1992) seems to support the United States Supreme Court ruling but claims the framers' reasoning behind doing away with term limits was due to the inability and lack of qualified congressional candidates. However, in modern-day America there is no lack of politically motivated individuals, with the introduction of social media, more and more people are able to exchange personal beliefs and information. This ability to get your name and ideas out there contributes to the congressional career. Wilhelm and Glassman (2013) mention general publicity as a cause of long political careers post-Civil War. Overall, there does not seem to be a lot of information linking term limits and productivity. There are a few sources that look at term limits the effect on behavior at the state level but not its effect directly related to policy creation. If further research were to be done on this topic this is where it should focus.
- Allebaugh, D., & Pinney, N. (2003). The real costs of term limits: Comparative study of competition and electoral costs. In R. Farmer, J. D. Rausch Jr., & J. C. Green (Eds.), The test of time: Coping with legislative term limits (pp. 161-176). New York: Lexington Books
- Barnicle, B. (1992). Congressional Term Limits: Unconsitutional by Initiative. Wash. L. Rev., 67, 415.
- Carey, J. M., Niemi, R. G., & Powell, L. W. (1998). The effects of term limits on state legislatures. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 271-300.
- Carey, J. M., Niemi, R. G., Powell, L. W., & Moncrief, G. F. (2006). The effects of term limits on state legislatures: a new survey of the 50 states. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 31(1), 105-134.
- Elhauge, E., Lott, J., & Manning, R. (1997). How Term Limits Enhance the Expression of Democratic Preferences. Supreme Court Economic Review, 5, 59-80. www.jstor.org/stable/1147095
- Glassman, M., & Wilhelm, A. H. (2013). Congressional careers: service tenure and patterns of member service, 1789-2013. Congressional Research Service.
- Grant, J. T., & Kelly, N. J. (2008). Legislative productivity of the US Congress, 1789–2004. Political Analysis, 16(3), 303-323.
- Hans, J. M. (1995). US Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton: State-Imposed Term Limits Are Unconstitutional, But What Else Did the Court Say. Tulsa LJ, 31, 585.
- Herrick, R., & Thomas, S. (2005). Do term limits make a difference? Ambition and motivations among US state legislators. American Politics Research, 33(5), 726-747.
- Stimson, James A. (1999). Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
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