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Term limits will have consequences

By Staff | Mar 26, 2010

While it is true that incumbency creates a political advantage for elected officials, thereby creating a certain inflexibility in governance, the idea of setting term limits to negate this advantage is not without consequences.

The circulators of petitions to limit North Dakota legislators to two terms may have all sorts of expectations but a reasoned assessment suggests that benefits will be few and will not offset the many disadvantages.

Loss of accountability: The argument that term limits would make government more accountable is without merit, primarily because an elected official facing a short career is less likely to be concerned about public opinion than one hoping to serve over the long run. Term-limited legislators would have less reason to curry favor with the electorate.

Crippled leadership: Legislative leadership would be crippled with a constant stream of inexperienced newcomers serving as committee chairs and floor leaders. Leadership doesn’t appear instantaneously. It requires the development of qualities required to lead and to function effectively. That takes more time than term limits would allow.

Strengthen lobbyists: Lobbyists would become more effective because they remain session after session and would become more influential plying their trade with inexperienced legislators coming through a revolving door.

Lose to executive branch: While the North Dakota executive branch is hobbled by too many elected officials and too many committees, the legislative branch must continue to be a viable branch of government. A constant turnover of legislative leadership and a decline in experience would weaken the legislative branch as a “check and balance” on the executive.

Lower quality legislation: The quality of legislation would decline for a couple of reasons. First, inexperienced legislators come to sessions with simplistic ideas about policymaking, not having been exposed to the implications of their ideas. Consequently, term limits would result in more “off-the-wall” legislation to clog the process. (We get enough of that without term limits.) Second, institutional knowledge an in-depth understanding of issues would decline with the number of experienced legislators.

Fewer consensus builders: A considerable part of the legislative process is one of negotiating conflict among competing interests. Consensus building is a process that requires give-and-take, something many new legislators must learn. While the legislature will always have a couple of old immovable incumbents, most legislators become better negotiators with experience.

Need unproven: If the North Dakota legislature consisted of long-serving “dead wood”, term limits would make sense but statistics indicate that North Dakota already has high turnover. Going into the 2009 session, half of the House members had four or fewer sessions of experience. And I would be hard-pressed to judge the rest as dead wood because dead wood is in the eye of the beholder.

Fifteen states do have legislative term limitations and none of them has reverted to territorial status. They are surviving. However, researchers and neutral observers agree that term-limited legislatures are not as competent as they were before term limits. With term limits first appearing in the early 1990s, we have collected enough data over the past 20 years to know that term limits have consequences.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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