Public Choice

, Volume 114, Issue 1, pp 1-56

First online:

Term Limits: Causes and Consequences

  • Edward J. LópezAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, University of North Texas

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This paper consults multiple literatures to specify andevaluate the economic rationales for term limitation,particularly on Congress. I first consider theories that aroseto explain, among related issues, why individual states mightunilaterally self-impose term limits on their own delegationsto Congress. Next I consider two main lines of argument foruniversal limits, both of which begin with the empiricalphenomenon of high and rising congressional tenure. First,supporters of term limits argue that higher tenure biaseslegislatures toward inefficiency big government (highspending). Second, higher tenure creates inefficient (anti-competitive) conditions in the legislative election market.Term limitation would remedy these inefficiencies by virtue ofdecreasing average tenure. These claims are then evaluated inlight of the evidence amassed in the literature. Based on theliterature reviewed, this paper finds that, while term limitswill reduce average tenure, there is no evidence to suggestthat term limits will affect the underlying causes of theseinefficiencies. Further research on a more general reform,which would strike deeper at these underlying causes, isimplied.