Why Term Limits Suck

Over at Cup of Coffee the topic of legislative term limits came up. I wrote this in response. I’m reposting it here for posterity and wider availability.


Yesterday I said, in passing, that I oppose legislative term limits. A lot of people both in the comments and on social media asked me why. What follows is my explanation.

First off, know that, while there is an element of principle here — I think that any law that curtails the right of people to choose their own representatives should be viewed extremely skeptically — this is not some mere philosophical opposition.

My opposition to term limits is based on living in a state which has had them for both its house and its senate for decades. Ohio’s term limit law was passed in 1992 and took effect in January 1993. Since then I have studied them as a political science major at Ohio State, worked with people subject to them as a private practice lawyer who had many political clients and matters, and worked directly with the legislature as its designated senior counsel in the Ohio Attorney General’s Constitutional Offices section. I, of course, have also lived under them as a citizen for all but three of the 30+ years they have been in effect. I offer all of that to tell you that, when it comes to term limits, I am not just offering my gut reaction here. I know of what I speak.

The fantasy that people who are only acquainted with the idea of term limits as opposed to having experience with the reality, is that term limits will kick out entrenched, corrupt public officials, inject the polity with fresh talent with new ideas who, by virtue of their outsider status, are not susceptible to corruption and by virtue of being limited will not be in perpetual campaign mode, thereby putting an end to the unholy alliance between elected officials and The Swamp. But it’s just that: fantasy. Indeed, rather than stem those things term limits have exacerbated them all.

The first thing term limit fans need to disabuse themselves of is the notion that term limits will create some sort of citizen legislator who serves for a brief period and then returns home having made a difference. That . . . is not a thing. Those who have become legislators in Ohio over the past 30 years have been every bit if not more careerist than those from non-term limited times. They just, by necessity, pursue it differently. As soon as they are elected to the house they start planning their strategy to get elected to the senate or vice-versa. If they make the jump they immediately start positioning themselves for a congressional seat, a statewide office, an executive appointment of some kind, or a place in the world of lobbying. If anything, our legislators now spend more time thinking about their careers than ever before and the palace intrigue is constant.

When you’re constantly on the make for your next gig, and when you cannot simply maintain your career by cultivating popularity back in your district via good acts — senate districts are different than house districts which are different than congressional districts, etc. etc. — the money men have all the power. At best that means caring about donors more than anyone else, but it can be worse.

A big reason my erstwhile client Larry Householder rose to power not just once but twice was that he understood this. He made himself a campaign donation clearinghouse, steering money to other legislators who were desperate for it in exchange for their loyalty. His ability to bundle a bunch of desperate, inexperienced legislators together gave him the ability to go shake down corporations which is why he’s now likely to die in prison. Not that his case can be cited as an example of swift justice being done. He was doing this for decades before he got caught, and the only reason he got caught leads us to another problem with term limits.

Householder got caught because the feds tapped the phone lines of a powerful lobbyist named Neil Clark, who bragged openly about his and Householder’s schemes. Clark was once your garden variety powerbroker, but he became insanely influential after term limits came online. All those new, inexperienced legislators coming in were easy pickings for an experienced and savvy operator like Clark and like others of his ilk. Both I and a lot of other people familiar with Clark’s rise observed his growing power — and his growing ego and ultimately his hubris — which led to his and Householder’s downfall. Clark, by the way, put a bullet in his own head while he was under co-indictment with Householder, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.

The point here is that when you have term limits, you have inexperienced — and, based on my time counseling them when I was with the AG’s office, downright stupid — legislators. When you have inexperienced and stupid legislators they are easy prey for a lobbyist class that has been around the capitol for decades and knows how everything works. Well, “prey” may not be the best word here because the legislators are not victims. They LOVE that the lobbyists, to whom they happily outsource the writing of laws, are there to help them handle the boring business of governing while they attend to the more important matter of finding their next job. Indeed, we have had multiple instances in which it was discovered that bills went right from a lobbyist’s Microsoft Word file to a legislator’s email to the governor’s desk and right into the Ohio Revised Code. This idea that term limits actually empower lobbyists — and bureaucrats* and outside interest groups — as opposed to cutting them off at the knees like so many term limit advocates fantasize, is not just my observation. It’s been studied academically and the lobbyists have happily told researchers that this is exactly what happens.

A related argument I’ve heard — that term limits will slow the revolving door between government and lobbyists’ offices — is patently absurd. With so many legislators getting kicked out onto the street due to term limits, where in the hell do you think they’re going? If your answer is “back home to run their farm or their insurance agency or whatever” you’re such a sweet summer child that I just want to hug you and keep you safe from this cruel world. No, they are running to the ever-growing lobbying firms and professional associations and consultancies and boards of directors of businesses that make their money by virtue of exercising influence over government. And, of course, the friendlier legislators are to such firms while in office, the more likely they are to get those high-paying gigs when they leave office.

Finally, there’s the simple matter of competence. We may not want to acknowledge it, but legislating is a profession. It takes expertise and, like anything else, it’s better done by those with experience. Term limits, by definition, kick out the most experienced and thus effective legislators and replace them with a bunch of ambitious simpletons who got into the business of legislating because it seemed like a good career move, who have no real idea what they’re doing and, for all the reasons set forth above, don’t particularly care. While an analogy to being operated on by an inexperienced surgeon is probably a bit extreme here, we in term limited states are certainly requiring, metaphorically speaking, that our cars be fixed by inexperienced mechanics and our drinks be mixed by inexperienced bartenders. It’s nothing you’d ever do in any other situation but when it comes to legislating there are people out there who think it’s a great idea for ignoramuses who won’t be around long enough to become knowledgable and experienced to hold the gig.

So yeah, we’ve had a lot of very bad things happen in Ohio since term limits came online, some of which are the direct product of term limits some indirect. And hey, maybe some of them happen with or without term limits. But here’s the thing: absolutely none of the promised benefits of term limits have come to pass. At all. Like, literally none. Even if you believe the claims of the most staunch term limit advocates and read their lists of the great things that would happen if term limits were to be enacted where they don’t currently exist, you cannot find a single one of them that has actually happened in places where they do exist.

Every time I mention my opposition to term limits a lot of people ask me why I oppose them. I think, after 30 years of this failure, the onus should be on them to explain why we should keep them.


*It’s worth noting that the other big political corruption case with which I had first-hand experience, Coingate, was kicked into motion when financial lobbyists and emboldened and crooked bureaucrats convinced the term-limit-weakened Ohio legislature to pass a law that struck the requirement that state funds be invested solely in bonds. After that passed, the same fund managers and brokers who funded that lobbying effort got the crooked bureaucrats to hire them to invest state pension funds and worker’s comp funds in questionable and sometimes downright shady investments. Things like rare coins, which one of my clients — and now, after his lengthy prison sentence, a loyal Cup of Coffee subscriber — managed on behalf of the state. That whole deal was not a DIRECT result of term limits, of course, but it was the sort of thing that could not have happened if not for a legislature that was uninterested and/or ignorant about the matter and lobbyists who were emboldened by their new power.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.