By Matthew Wall
In this post, I would like to open a discussion around the idea of imposing term limits on our TDs. This is not an idea that has heretofore received much attention in Ireland. As such, the post is primarily concerned with ‘crowd-sourcing’ peoples’ opinions on how term limits would play out in Ireland, and whether we should consider adopting them.
There are several relatively standard arguments for and against from the US, where reform movements in the early 1990s led to the adoption of term limits ranging between 6 and 12 years (per chamber) in 21 state legislatures, and where the idea of term limits for federal legislators was briefly considered in the mid 1990s.
The standard arguments against term limits for legislators run broadly as follows:
- Term limits are undemocratic – they limit voter choice.
- We already have term limits – in the form of regular elections, with any legislator’s ongoing term of office conditional on re-election.
- Term limits remove experienced and knowledgeable legislators from office, consequently unelected bureaucrats and legislative staff become more influential – as novice legislators have to rely on their advice and expertise.
- Term limits lead to ‘lame duck’ syndrome – knowledge that a legislator will not be around in the near future diminishes their capacity to exert influence over fellow members, and to do deals, leading to legislative deadlock.
- Term limits reduce the incentives of politicians to be responsive to voters when in office – they leave voters unable to control their representatives.
- Political representatives facing mandatory retirement due to term limits would be more easily corrupted, given the financial insecurity that they would face.
Some arguments in favour of term limits, on the other hand, are:
- The current system is undemocratic: sitting legislators exploit the advantages of incumbency in terms of power, resources, name recognition etc., so that challengers are systematically disadvantaged in elections relative to incumbents – a state of affairs that undermines the ideal of democratic equality.
- Term limits would eliminate ‘career politicians’, and replace them with ‘citizen politicians’ – in essence, the contention here is that being an elected representative would cease to be a lifetime profession – elected representatives would operate in the certain knowledge that they would have to eventually return to being ordinary citizens in their society. This, advocates argue, would reduce the extent of the fabled ‘disconnect’ between the public and their representatives.
- The power of incumbency inhibits the translation of social changes into changes in legislator demographics. Apart from demographic shifts – changes in ideas and values may also be more accurately reflected after the introduction of term limits.
- The constant drive for re-election forces legislators to spend more time on constituency affairs than on national affairs, as well as explaining the pressure on legislators to produce ‘pork’ for their constituency. Term limits would free legislators to legislate.
- Term limits could lead to a greater emphasis on merit, rather than seniority, in appointing legislators to positions of responsibility.
- Term limits may focus the minds of legislators on achieving whatever changes that they want to bring about, rather than playing the ‘long game’ and biding their time.
The study of the effects of adopting legislator term limits is still in its infancy among political scientists because of the fact that there is very little hard data: term limits imposed in US state legislatures only began to come into force from 1996 onwards.
The most expansive study of the effects of term limits in US state legislatures that I have come across was carried out by Carey et al., and is reported in Legislative Studies Quarterly. They divide the effects of term limits into three broad categories:
1) Compositional effects: these are differences in terms of demographic and ideological make-up of the legislature. According to Carey et al. this is a ‘dog that still won’t bark’ – i.e., there is little evidence that term limit state legislatures differ much from non-term limit legislatures in terms of the gender, family income, education, age, religion, race or ideology of their members.
2) Behavioural effects: this category refers to differences in the types of activities undertaken by legislators. Here Carey et al. found significant differences in responses to their survey, which they describe as a ‘Burkean shift’. Legislators in legislatures where term limits spend less time dealing with district-related issues, and servicing their constituencies. Term limited legislators also appear to give less weight to constituency considerations, and more to both ‘the state as a whole’ and their ‘own conscience’.
3) Institutional effects: Finally, Carey et al. looked at differences in the balance of power between institutions. In general it seems that, according to legislators’ perceptions, the executive branch (i.e. state governors and bureaucracy) were more powerful relative to the legislature in term limit states.
This question of how term limits would play out in Ireland is a complex one, and it is difficult to know how many lessons we can draw from the experiences of US state legislatures. For one thing, the US federal structure allows for state legislators to follow a ‘progressive ambition’ approach, seeking to compete for offices with broader and broader constituencies – which may explain the relationship between term limits and attention to state-wide issues. We cannot say, therefore, whether the same ‘behavioural effects’ would occur in Irish politics. The formal separation of legislature and executive is another point of differentiation – so it is hard to know what, if any, ‘institutional effects’ term limits would have in Ireland where the two bodies are more closely intertwined.
Finally, it is interesting to wonder whether the notion of term limits would garner popular support in Ireland. In short, Irish people seem to like voting for incumbents (and their husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, etc.), so it is difficult to imagine popular support for an institution that would limit their capacity to do so. Nonetheless, term limits have proven to be a relatively popular suggestion when voted on in the USA.
Carey, John M.; Niemi, Richard G.; Powell, Lynda W.; Moncrief, Gary F. ‘The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States.’ Legislative Studies Quarterly, Volume 31, Number 1, February 2006 , pp. 105-134(30).
 Apart from the length of term, there is an interesting distinction to be made between term limits that require that legislators ‘take a break’ for at least one election, once they reach that limit, after which they can re-enter the fray, versus term limits that permanently exclude members from resuming office. Bill Clinton discusses reforming the term limit regime of the US presidency from the former system to the later here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/23/clinton-theres-an-argumen_n_736309.html