You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here: should we consider term limits in the Dáil?

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[1] (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.

Full citation:

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).


[1] 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

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15 thoughts on “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here: should we consider term limits in the Dáil?

  1. The problem term limits seeks to address is the emergence of a political class who dominate public life, control access to services in return for votes and perpetuate themselves down the generations. Along with a reduction in the numbers it is a most important reform.

    Talented people doing their stint and going back to their main career is how politics should be.

    • Yes – I feel exactly the same way.

      A guy called Michels in the early 20th century talked about ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’; which basically says that political organisation is inevitably hierarchical, even in organisations that are pledged to inclusive democracy. This is because some sort of leadership is always necessary, and leaders develop technical and administrative skills because they have time and resources to dedicate to such things – most people are naturally passive and have to work in ‘normal’ jobs. Leaders promote people who will support them, and encourage supporters to follow their ideas. Eventually, leaders come to totally dominate their rank and file supporters.

      Anyway – my point is that this takes a while to happen, and that term limits might interrupt the cycle somewhat – as well as opening up access to political leadership to a much broader range of citizens.

  2. Shouldn’t we instead be tackling why so many Irish people vote for such bad politicans and why so many Irish people accept such low standards in all manner of things.

    Term limits will just mean the son or daughter of the crony TD retiring will replace them?

    Look at the nonsense today about Mary Coughlan, one of the worst Ministers in the entire government and the media acts like Fine Gael are stopping David Norris going to a Joyce Symposium at Harvard.

    We are sending someone who doesn’t know the difference between Alma Mater and Imprimatur to meet the heads of colleges like Yale and Harvard and FG remove her pair and the media go crazy. You couldn’t make it up.

    So like the media’s hysterics over Coughlan completely missing the point, wouldn’t term limits, like quota not also entirely miss the point?

    There are still 20% or so of people who will vote Fianna Fáil, which means if 20% will admit it, then 30% will vote for them? Who are these people? Are they insane or brain dead?

    The only way for the corruption and cronyism and sleveenism to stop is for people to stop voting for crooks, for cronies and for sleveens.

    • For me, focusing on personal slips like the ‘Impramatur’ and ‘Einstein’s Theory of Evolution’ quotes misses the point most of all. I can see why it happens – they are pretty funny, and easy to remember. But really – they don’t matter a damn.

      Nobody is perfect, everybody mis-speaks – I once said at a party that I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation on ‘African erections’! (it was actually on African elections) 🙂 That doesn’t mean I’m stupid or a bad person, it’s just an embarassing mistake that i made.

      If someone wants to know how good I am at my job, I would ask that they look at the work that I produce. I think that we should give the same courtesy to our political leaders.

      On your bigger point – there’s not much point in railing against peoples’ political preferences, in my opinion.

  3. First question, who posted this? I wish the site editors whould enforce a standard that makes it clear who starts it.
    Good to have this idea raised now.

    “Finally, it is interesting to wonder whether the notion of term limits would garner popular support in Ireland.”
    We already have a term limit for the directly elected president – two terms not longer than 7 years each.
    If we apply this to TDs, we then apply this to the Taoiseach and other other Cabinet members, depending on how what the term limit is. In this sense, it could apply the US and French constitutional limits on the head of the Exucutive side of government.

    “In short, Irish people seem to like voting for incumbents (and their husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, etc.)”
    Do you have any figures to support this impression?
    Michael Gallagher did observe that “The Dáil continues to stand out in a comparative context for the very high number of it members (44 out of 166, or 27 per cent)who have been preceded by one or more relatives. On a subjective judgment, this was significant in the TD’s initial selection in all but six cases. The largest category consists of the 25 sons who followed their fathers into the house and there are also five nephews, four daughters and three brothers”
    “The earthquake that never happened:analysis of the results” in Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh (ed) How Ireland Voted 2007 – the full story of Ireland’s General Election” p. 101
    I take it that he has data to back up the comparison he implies.

    “so it is difficult to imagine popular support for an institution that would limit their capacity to do so”
    IMO, anything could happen now to the political class, if properly worked out options were presented.
    This posting is a start to get such ideas more widely known and discussed.

    What is the position is each of the other 26 EU Member states, starting simply with members of the lower house and also other small western-style democracies eg. Norway, Switzerland, Israel, New Zealand?
    Perhaps there is some readily available comparative and authoritative source for such data?

    • Hey donal,

      I posted this – it should have my name under the post title; that’s what I’m seeing on my iPhone. I’ll check on a pc tomorrow.

      On the comparative figures regarding the number of MPs preceded by family members – I’m not sure. Ireland is not the only country with political dynasties, as the labour party leadership races reminded us. I do have some figures on incumbent performance in Ireland, which I will post tomorrow. I’m afraid I don’t have anything solid on the EU I know that john Carey wrote a book on legislative term limits, which is available on google books – however he looked (I think) at a couple of Latin American states. I’ll post the link for this tomorrow too.

  4. Interesting idea, though in realpolitik terms no doubt a non-starter. It would require a constitutional amendment, which I think the Oireachtas is unlikely to propose, and would have to be coupled with greater separation of executive and legislature, otherwise all ministers too would have to be people in either their first or second terms, ie people with little experience of practical politics. While a government of newcomers might please those who think ‘new faces’ are the solution to every problem, most times, this one especially, seem like ‘no time for a novice’, as the phrase has it. And an executive faced by a parliament separated from it and composed entirely of first- or second-term TDs sounds like a recipe either for complete executive dominance or for a degree of chaos or deadlock.

    • @Michael Gallagher
      “And an executive faced by a parliament separated from it and composed entirely of first- or second-term TDs sounds like a recipe either for complete executive dominance …..”.

      In what ways would the “complete executive dominance” you mention differ from what we now have in this Republic?
      As you well know, in our system unless the Executive/Government completely dominates the Dáil, it is no longer the Government.

      In her November 2009 paper on the Impact of the Crisis on the Irish Political System (http://www.ssisi.ie/Hardiman26-11-09.pdf), UCD’s Dr. Niamh Hardiman had a very informative Figure 6 (p. 32) showing clearly just how our government dominates the parliament (just as does the UK government, on which our constitution, political custom and practice is based) compared to other European countries

  5. Here’s a link to John Carey’s book – ‘term limits and legislative representation’:

    http://bit.ly/amHuqS

    He looks at how term limits have played out in Venezeuala and Costa Rica.

    On Michael’s point – i think that you are probably right about the realpolitik, but then, we’re in funny times at the moment – and this did come somewhat close to happening at the federal level in the States, indeed it did happen in several state-level legislatures, so why not here if a party takes up the idea?

    If there were to be a slew of constitutional referendums (FG proposal) or some sort of citizen assembly to re-write the entire constitution (Labour proposal) post-election, then aren’t these sort of changes are much more possible in realpolitik terms now than they have been in a long time?

    On the point about the legisltative executive implications, i believe that you are totally right, both on saying that they would have to be made more seperate with term limits and in saying that executive experience is extremely important. However, I think that the seperartion of executive and legislature would open up executive selection beyond the population of the Dail to include, basically, the rest of the country – where there appears to be abundant knowledge and experience of finance and economics, communications, agriculture etc.

    On executive dominance – I have to agree with Donal on this, it’s hard to imagine a more dominant executive (relative to the legislature) than the one we have now. I feel that a greater seperation of the branches of govt. would necessarily lead to more Oireachtas influence than we currently see.

    Deadlock is a more worrying problem, in my opinion. I think we’d need to look hard at non-majoritarian approaches to running a legislature that involves compromise and cooperation rather than unceasing mutual antagonism. Also, it might be good to have a system where the government doesn’t collapse if any one item of its legislation is voted down or ammended in a way it doesn’t like – even if it’s something as insignificant as say – rules about hunting stags!

  6. @Mattthew
    Thanks for clarifying your initiative on this thread.

    “Deadlock is a more worrying problem”
    Two points about this
    1) Our system produces another form of deadlock – in the form of inertia. The best examples are the structure of the tax system (about which two reports have been commissioned by Governments in 30 years – with no effect) and the fact that An Bord Snip had to be convened twice in the same period. Other commentators has raised the implementation deficit disorder – another name for “deadlock”.
    2) Is “deadlock” just a myth? How often has this actually happened? What effects has it had, when it did happen? Was the French experience of “co-habitation” such that it led to complete paralysis and a lessening of the common good that could only be attributed to “deadlock”?
    As deadlock is usually raised in the context of the US, I would be very surprised if no work has been done there to mitigate the effects of any deadlock that might emerge at either federal or state levels in the USofA. When I say mitigation, I mean both theoretical work and also measures taken that we may not be aware of. After all, the Federalist Papers do refer to the concept of “partial agency”. It would be great if the political science community here would let us know how the “partial agency” concept has ddeveloped – if at all, even if it is not as I feel it might be.

    I sometimes feel that “deadlock” argument is produced far too quickly and is too easily taken as the last word on why we, here in this Republic, should not explore other ways of governing ourselves. The exercise of power in democracies is always going to be messy and involve compromises that may not be elegant. IMO, it is far better that the absence of deadlock that one could term to be how poer is exercised in autocratic and dictatorial regimes.
    Like other things, as the deadlock argument will not go away, it looks as though I have to do a little work on that myself!

  7. It seems rather ironic that Americans term-limit their elected officials – all Presidents and, at State level, most Governors and many legislators – yet allow many powerful appointed officials to serve indefinitely, whether at pleasure (Cabinet Secretaries like James A Baker or Warren Christopher), for life (Supreme Court justices), or for extremely long terms (14 years each for Federal Reserve Governors other than the Chair).

    If one’s primary fear is of populist caesarism, of “the unending audacity of elected persons”, then this would make sense. If, however, one’s main fear is of unaccountable power in any form – and if one regards standing for election as a check upon power rather than an aggrandisement of it – then it makes no sense. I’m in the latter group, but then luminaries like William Riker are in the first group, so what do I know…

  8. BTW, I can’t speak for Ireland, but here in Australia plenty of MPs and Senators seem happy enough to quit Parliament voluntarily (resign mid-term, retire at next election) after a decade or so in the bear pit. Coincidentally, this happens to be around the time when they qualify for very generous pensions/ superannuation for life. So perhaps a carrot (enactable by ordinary statute) might work as well as a stick (requiring a referendum and Constitutional amendment)?

    • Yeah, good idea Donal – in fact, I was thinking about looking at what we could learn from the UK govt. reforms (electoral reform aside) more generally. Hopefully will get a day to put that together next week.

  9. I would assume, coming at it cold, that in clientelist political systems where (a) the parties are not sharply divided on class grounds, and (b) the electoral system allows voters to replace a legislator with another candidate of the same party – ie, Ireland and the USA – it would make good short-term sense to elect a close relative of a vacating or retiring legislator. “Welcome to the Dail/ Congress, mr/ Ms O’Shaughnessy. Your da/ pappy can confirm that I saved his bacon in ’82 by working my ass/ arse for his re-election campaign. Now, about that pothole on the road outside my house…?”

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