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Congressional Term Limits: An Idea Whose Time Is Never

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As far as billionaires burning enormous amounts of money that could be put to far more productive political use running vanity campaigns go, Tom Steyer is infinitely preferable to Michael Bloomberg. But as you would expect along with some good ideas he’s susceptible to dumb “we must get the politics out of politics” ideas that are massively counterproductive. Like term limits:

Constitutional limits aside, term limits are the sort of reform that may seem intuitive to many voters, but that is widely rejected by political scientists and others who’ve studied their impact closely. As Dartmouth government professor Brendan Nyhan said of Steyer, “few politicians have worked so hard or spent so much to, in effect, troll an entire scientific field.”

A 2006 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures examined states with term-limited lawmakers. It determined that term limits tend to increase the influence of lobbyists and lead to a “decline in civility” that “reduced legislators’ willingness and ability to compromise and engage in consensus building.”

Term-limited lawmakers, the NCSL explained, “have less time to get to know and trust one another” and “are less collegial and less likely to bond with their peers, particularly those from across the aisle.”

Such lawmakers often do not have enough time to learn how the legislature works or to master difficult policy issues. And they can’t turn to senior colleagues to give them this information because there are no senior colleagues. That “forces term-limited legislators to rely on lobbyists for information,” because lobbyists are able to spend years mastering legislative process and developing institutional memory about recurring policy debates.

Term limits may also reward dishonest behavior by lobbyists. In a legislature with long-serving lawmakers, the NCSL explains, lobbyists depend on “their reputation to effectively do their jobs.” A lobbyist caught “lying to or misleading a legislator” risks “a loss of credibility that quickly ends a lobbying career.” Thus, lobbyists have an incentive “to use reliable information and provide legislators with all sides of a policy debate” when they know that those lawmakers may stay around for a long time.

With term limits, however, a lobbyist caught in a lie only needs to wait a little while and this lie will be forgotten. As a result, the NCSL warns, “short-term lobbying goals have come [to] outweigh the importance of long-term credibility.”

I really wish Steyer would stick to giving money to help actual liberal politicians get elected instead.

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