Why Government Spending Increases Under Term Limits

Ed Lopez explains:

  • Term limitation exacerbates fiscal commons problems within the legislature. Because term limits decrease the variance of tenure within a legislature, the relative power of party leaders and ranking committee members will decrease. As the distribution of power flattens, this increases the proportion of legislators who possess access rights to budget items, thus decreasing the control rights that a relatively few leaders and committee chairs would otherwise have. When everyone can get their pet project through, more projects get through.
  • Term limits shorten legislators’ time horizons. If legislators use their time in office to advance their careers, and if the career-value of being in the statehouse increases with the support of more spending, then term limits can impart an incentive to spend more and sooner. For example, rank-and-file legislators support more spending to secure leadership positions, and leaders let more projects through in order to quickly build durable coalitions.
  • Term limits might lure legislators into very wasteful forms of pork spending, according to this paper by Michael Herron and Kenneth Shotts:

Term limits can, in some cases, inhibit voters from selecting representatives who deliver particularistic benefits, and, in these cases, term limits reduce pork spending. On the other hand, when pork is extremely socially inefficient, representatives who want to deliver pork to their districts have incentives to refrain from doing so to reduce future pork in other districts. In this scenario, term limits actually prevent legislators from promoting future spending moderation and thus paradoxically increase pork spending.


  1. The greatest potential benefit with term limits is that we get back to the concept of ‘citizen legislator’ and away from ‘career politician.’

    The hope would be that instead of the self-centered dead weight we have now (on both sides of the aisle), people who are incapable of doing pretty much anything except giving a speech and handing out big checks, that we’d get people who truly want to serve and do good work for a limited time, then go back to the private sector.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Deprofessionalizing the legislature is a terrible idea. It’s a recipe for greater control by lobbyists and special interests.

      • Jon they already control Washington. The legislators we have now are not professional at all – unless you count as “professional” being a two-bit whore.

        If someone knows they’re only in Washington for 6 years, and have to come back to a real job (remember, part of term limits is no more pensions or retirement benefits of any kind for politicians), their incentive may be to work toward the public good instead of their own self-centered good.

        Is it perfect? No, and whores will still do damage. But what we have now is a disaster.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          I would encourage you to read more about lobbying to understand why your proposed solution won’t achieve what you think it will. The most important leverage lobbyists have over politicians is their control of information. Politicians, like all people, have only so much time in the day. Most of them arrive after being elected with a few specific issues they want to work on. They want to devote a lot of time to their priority issues, but still have to vote on all the other stuff. How do they stay informed about the issues they don’t care as much about? Lobbyists. Lobbyists provide an information subsidy to legislators and staffers. They give politicians reports and materials explaining bills, and oftentimes that information is coming via former colleagues and staffers who politicians know and trust. They’re willing to defer to the lobbyists because the lobbyists help reduce the time and effort they and their staff need to spend working on issues that aren’t their main priorities. But think about how much power comes with controlling that information, and controlling how issues are framed.

          Politicians who have been around a long time and know the ins and outs of many policy issues aren’t going to be as susceptible to sketchy framing and selective presentation of information about bills as their newly elected colleagues.

  2. You are way too in love with politicians. We should probably have this discussion in about 10 years when you’ve seen enough reality to ruin the illusions you carry about how only want to do the public good, never put themselves first, etc.

    Jon, they’re whores. And the ones who’ve been in Washington the longest cater to lobbyists even more – they know they’re incapable of doing anything in the private sector except super-sizing my order, so they glom onto lobbyists so they can land a cushy job there.

    I’ve worked with lobbyists for 30+ years. It’s revolting how they can make politicians, and yes even experienced ones, dance at their whim.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I’m not in love with politicians, I’m just being realistic about this – the only way to counter the power of lobbyists is strong disciplined political parties. A strong party system where legislators are disciplined by the party and expected to vote the party line on basically everything is a system where lobbyists have a harder time peeling off individual politicians. If your issue positions are effectively decided for you, then it doesn’t do much good for lobbyists to buy you tickets to sporting events or brief you on this or that issue. Your advancement in politics depends on you not breaking ranks, not doing favors for special interests.

  3. I couldn’t disagree more. Your solution cedes power to the elite where decisions get made in back rooms, out of the public eye – and by the most powerful of lobbyists, not at all without them.

    Nothing good ever comes out of a solution which results in less scrutiny and visibility.

  4. “Your advancement in politics depends on you not breaking ranks, not doing favors for special interests.”

    I can’t let this one slide either. You advance not based on talent, or intelligence, or ability to get things done; you advance based on being able to shut up, do as you’re told, and read a teleprompter well.

    If that isn’t a recipe for disaster I don’t know what is.

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