Do Term Limits Help?

Can term limits act to counter the effect of money in politics? In my Jan 8, 2005  post at, I argue that they don’t.  I’m willing to discuss any idea that has the potential to minimize the impact of money in politics. But I don’t believe that term limits address the real issue. (The post is reproduced here, as well.)

Originally published 2005

Would term limits help to minimize the impact of money in politics? I’m willing to discuss any idea that has that potential, but I don’t believe that term limits address the real issue.

Most politicians are motivated by the desire to do something. They desire power in the truest sense of the word — the ability to do things. We all do.

The question is, what do they want to do? If their goal is to serve people, they have every right to be there, as long as they have enough constiuents to support them, for as long as they have that support.

The problem is with the money in the system. Because of it:

  1. Politicians with enough of it can stay in office forever, regardless of what they actually
    do, barring egregious excess or deficiency.
  2. Corporations, who supply the money, become the politician’s true constituents.

Now, legislation that happens to favor a corporation isn’t entirely bad. When a politician is thinking about the people in the corporation, and acting in their best interests, it can be a good thing. But right now decisions are being made that increase corporate profits at the expense of people.

Term limits might help slightly, but:

  1. It’s the wrong problem.
  2. The money would still go to the incumbent for as many reelections as they’re eligible for.
  3. The money would still seek out sympathetic candidates.
  4. All such political solutions run into the chicken and egg problem that money currently controls the elections, and we don’t. So how do we implement the change?
  5. You get the downside (losing experienced legislators who know how to work together) with no clear upside.
  6. It’s the wrong problem.

It doesn’t take a degree in computer science to know that when you solve the wrong problem, you don’t get anywhere — no matter how good the solution may be in other respects.

That said, term limits were passed in California. Did they help? I really don’t know. I would welcome some insights.

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