The introduction of term limits in the 1990s represents the
most significant institutional change in American state
legislatures since the movement to professionalize legislatures in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, some form of restriction on the
length of tenure in office exists in fifteen state legislatures. Enacted primarily by voter initiatives, term limits have been both the source of a debate over the merits of restricting incumbents’ ability to return to office and the subject of close examination by scholars and members of legislative service organizations interested in determining how legislatures have been affected by and have adapted to these restrictions. The body of research, drawing on national surveys and intensive state studies, has addressed questions concerning the effect of term limits on the composition of legislatures, the competitiveness of elections, the power relationships between legislators and other political actors, and the nature and quality of policies produced, as well as how legislatures have adjusted their internal organization and operating procedures to accommodate these changes.
Term limits have also been applied to executive branch
officials, most notably to the U.S. President and to state
governors. In the wake of the term limit movement of the 1990s, an increasing number of municipalities—though an unknown fraction of the total—have extended term limits to local officeholders.
This paper reviews the findings of research on term limits,
almost all of which has examined state legislatures. We assess
how well the arguments for and against term limits stand up to
the evidence and discuss the applicability of these conclusions to local legislative councils and executive actors. While the debate over term limits has hardly been resolved, it seems that term limits are neither the panacea portrayed by the most fervent advocates nor the disaster depicted by the harshest critics.