Proposals to limit the terms of members of Congress and of state legislators are popular and getting more so, according to the pundits and the polls. Students of government like me find it hard to understand why. Contrary to most of the propaganda on the subject, these constitutional changes won't do what their proponents say they want to accomplish.
For example, term limitations will not decrease the influence of interest groups and their money on elections. Quite the contrary. Forcing senior members of a legislature to retire means that the new candidates who try to take their place will have to invest heavily in achieving the name recognition that the veterans already have. This will require large new infusions of money and electoral alliances with interest groups who can supply it.
Veteran members--proven vote-getters--are much more powerful in relation to special interests than candidates who have to prove themselves in an uncertain and expensive campaign environment.
Term limitations won't improve the functioning of the legislature, either. People need time to learn their jobs. Term limitations throw away the benefits of learning from experience. Inexperienced legislators are less powerful in relation to legislative staff, executive branch bureaucrats and interest-group lobbyists from whom they must learn the customs and routines of legislative operations and the stories behind policy proposals.
New people in any complex institution are highly dependent on the people around them. Term limitations just shift power from elected officials to the relatively inaccessible officials, bureaucrats and influence peddlers who surround them.
Why do we assume that new blood is automatically better than old? Of course we should pay attention to the quality of our legislators and vote against those whose performance we find wanting. Term limits merely guarantee that the good will disappear along with the bad.
Finally, term limitations won't enhance representative democracy. Just the opposite, since they create an artificial barrier preventing voters from returning to office legislators they might otherwise favor. Why are we so certain that voters have such terrible judgment that they need a constitutional restriction keeping them from voting for incumbents they know and like? It is hard to see how restricting voters' alternatives in this arbitrary way can be proposed in the name of representative government or of democracy.
One must conclude that other forces are at work. More likely, groups and interests that now have a hard time winning against incumbents are seeking term limitations to improve their chances of winning office. They are undoubtedly calculating that non-incumbents are easier to beat, or buy. They're probably right about that.