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Legislative term limits give public opinion a power-up

nick cowen, 14 October 2011

Via the Monkey Cage, we learn of a new and interesting academic study examining how public opinion effects law-making across US states. The results offer some tentative support for a theory put forward in our report, Total Recall. There we argued that direct democratic mechanisms can complement representative democracy but primarily as a way to limit the powers of elected officials.


Even in a democracy, public opinion has a comparatively weak and indirect impact on the decisions of legislatures. Public opinion is mediated and filtered through the voting system, rules of order and agenda setting in the legislature, as well as the interests of public officials, political parties, and other organised groups. This is not always a bad thing; public opinion can get things wrong especially about technical issues or things like civil rights for minority groups. Sometimes expertise, experience or personal testimony should trump, or at least hold back, majority rule. At the same time, it is part of the job of elected legislators to represent and reflect the views of their constituents, and it is important to understand what rules and institutions support that function and which count against it.

So what did Lax and Phillips find? First they found that public opinion is one important input into the legislative process. Essentially, more liberal public opinion tends to produce more liberal legislation, and more conservative views feed into more conservative laws (this is using American terminology). But this influence is limited, with majority opinion agreeing with law-making decisions only about half the time. They found that political parties, and their ideological interests, were often able to pull legislatures away from majority opinions.

Interestingly, they found that term limits play a significant role in bringing law-makers back in line with public opinion. Term limits are restrictions that prevent politicians from standing repeatedly for the same post after a certain number of terms in office. Just as the US President is only allowed to stand for two terms, so a number of state legislatures force some representatives after a period in office to be replaced by new blood.

There are a number of benefits to this sort of scheme. First, it means that politicians have to act reasonably quickly if they want to make a difference while they are in office, perhaps with their initial election promises still fresh in their minds. There is no use getting comfortable when facing a term limit. Secondly, it means that people with careers, knowledge and skills outside of politics might be more tempted to run, in the knowledge that they will only be representing their constituents for a few years. In fact, merely increasing the turn-over of politicians helps to ensure more people get to have a go at representing their community overall. Thirdly, you reduce the tendency for politicians to turn into permanent careerists who are more easily absorbed into the machine of government. If they aren’t around for long, then there is a little less opportunity for them to cut deals: things like ‘support my bill, and I’ll vote for your amendment when the time comes’ or what public choice theorists call ‘logrolling’.

The main disadvantage of these schemes is that it means that experienced politicians are lost after a few years. This might be a problem, especially if it ends up strengthening the positions of permanent officials like civil servants. But this evidence suggests that, if you want a more accountable legislature, then this is a price worth paying. Terms limits bring politicians closer to the people.

Other ways of limiting the power of politicians, including referendums and initiatives, were not associated with legislation that better reflected public opinion according to this study. The exception was the close connection between initiative powers being available to voters and term limits being introduced. It turns out that sitting politicians rarely decide to restrict their own terms of office (big surprise!) and that a directly democratic mechanism is usually required to introduce those limits. In this sense, although direct democracy is an imperfect way of directly improving accountability to the electorate, by offering some additional ways to check the powers of politicians, it might still make a positive contribution.


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