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Carey, Moncrief, Niemi, and Powell: Term limits in the state legislatures

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State Politics

Carey, Moncrief, Niemi, and Powell. 2003. Term limits in the state legislatures: Results from a new survey of the 50 states. APSA paper.


Many states adopted term limits in the early 1990s. Now that some time has passed, we can assess their affects. The authors want to assess three kinds of effect: Compositional, behavioral, and institutional.

Take-Away Point: Term limits have no significant effect on legislator demographics. They do have significant effects on behavior and institutional balance-of-power. (At least, if you believe in the data's validity).


  1. COMPOSITIONAL: No real effects. Candidates in term limit states have the same income, age, religion, and race as candidates in other states, though there may be a slight advantage for female candidates. ** Term limits do not appear to reduce legislative professionalism.
  2. BEHAVIORAL: Legislators claim to spend less time on campaigning and fundraising (at least when their final term approaches). Interesting, legislators in term-limit states apparently place more emphasis on state-wide interests and personal conscious over district interests.
  3. INSTITUTIONAL: Legislators in term-limit states claim that governors are more powerful. Party leaders and committee chairs also lose power (party leaders lose it first, though). Bureaucrats, interest group, and legislative staff have roughly the same interests.


They gave surveys to all the state legislators in the nation with a 40% response rate. They compare responses in term-limit states to responses in non-term-limit states. Although they say things like "term limits increased...", however, all they can really demonstrate is that legislators give different answers in term limit states than in non-term limit states. This could have several different causes:

  1. States that adopt term limits differ from states that don't. This is an especially pernicious threat when they present their "most significant" result: that term limits "increase" the power of governors relative to legislators. Why should we assume this to be the case? Perhaps it is the governor's pre-existing advantage that led to the adoption of term limits in the first place.
  2. The fight for term limits changed legislator's perceptions. After all, arguments in favor of term limits would clearly lead legislators to realize that citizens expect more effort spent improving the state and less effort spent on pork and fundraising. Is it any surprise, then, that legislators in term-limit states claim in surveys that they spend less time on these activities than legislators in non-term-limit states? Perhaps they have simply grown accustomed to emphasizing other parts of their work.


  • I'm curious why they don't make an argument along these lines to explain their finding that term limits appear to make legislators more "Burkean" (i.e. they think more about public welfare than about their district's demands): (1) Legislators in all states (term limits or not) are ambitious. (2) Term limits force legislators to think more about pursuing higher offices, with a broader constituency. (3) Therefore, term limits lead legislators to focus more on statewide needs and their own conscience rather than merely pursuing district pork.