Reason Podcast

The Libertarian Case for Term Limits

Nick Tomboulides of U.S. Term Limits says the best way to shrink government is to limit how long legislators can serve.


"Congress has given us $22 trillion in debt, the longest war in American history, a broken health care system, a broken immigration system, a tax code written by lobbyists, and an explosion of money in politics. Worst of all, too few here have the courage to address these problems because the only focus is on reelection."

That's a quote from the June Senate testimony of Nick Tomboulides, the executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a group that believes the last, best hope for shrinking the size, scope, and spending of government is kicking senators out of office after a maximum of two terms and House members after three.

In today's Reason Podcast, Tomboulides tells Nick Gillespie that over 80 percent of voters (including former President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump, and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke) support term limits, that shortening political careers will lead to better candidates running for office, and that a grassroots movement is pushing state legislatures to amend the Constitution to include term limits. The 30-year-old Tomboulides also recounts his journey from a traditional Republican political operative to a libertarian activist in the wake of both the disastrous Iraq War begun under George W. Bush and the presidential campaigns of former Rep. Ron Paul.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.


U.S. Term Limits home page.

U.S. Term Limits' Twitter feed.

Listen to No Uncertain Terms, a weekly podcast featuring Tomboulides and U.S Term Limits' president, Philip Blumel.

"How Beto O'Rourke would address term limits for lawmakers," Politico, June 5, 2019.

"The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States," by John M. Carey, Richard G. Niemi, Lynda W. Powell, and Gary F. Moncrief, Legislative Studies Quarterly, January 7, 2011.

Reason on term limits.

Tomboulides' Senate testimony from June 21, 2019:

NEXT: Can #NeverTrump GOP Presidential Wannabe Joe Walsh Run on Deficit Reduction and Win?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. So not allowing us to vote for the candidate of our choice is Libertarian?

    Damn, I guess I mis-read all that stuff about individual choices and all. Why shouldn’t I vote for an experienced politician? What magic aliment inflicts him after a set number of terms?
    If you don’t like the results, campaign against the individual candidate, not the right of each individual to vote their conscience.

    1. Damn, I guess I mis-read all that stuff about individual choices and all.

      You realize there is a difference between a free choice in the voluntary (private) sector, and “free choice” to force some asshat politician on everyone else, right? Libertarianism is not the same thing as democracy.

      1. I’ve always been against term limits for the reason listed above. But I do realize it’s not some sort of logical slam dunk.

        8 yr Olds can’t run for president either, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about that limiting their voting freedom.

        1. Which is precisely why AOC is running for president in 2020. It’s just a coincidence that she has the intelligence of an 8 year old.

      2. “”“free choice” to force some asshat politician on everyone else, right? “”

        Aside from the President, the 51% does force some asshat politician on the 49%. Also, the 51% can vote out an incumbent regardless of how many terms they have held.

        Many people, not all of course, want term limits because they dislike a politician representing other people. I dislike Pelosi, but the people of her district keep re-electing her. That’s not my business, it’s her constituents business. It doesn’t matter that she affects legislation in a way I don’t like. Her job is to represent her people, not me.

        1. Generally it’s a lot less than that. 15 % of eligible NYC voters put deBlasio in office. I think only 20% vote, both times. Everyone else doesn’t GOF. I wouldn’t mind seeing a law that unless at least 50% vote the seat sits empty. Why should you be represented if you don’t vote and don’t care.
          I’d also like to see the 17th amendment repealed. At least the Senate would have to answer to someone besides campaign donors.

    2. You mean vote for the person of your choice because if a person is term limited they can’t be a candidate.

    3. See dude’s reply to this argument at roughly the 36 minute mark

    4. the deck is stacked against anyone running against the establishment. Incumbents have too great an advantage. They have free media coverage, tax payer funded mailing privileges, funding from the party the newbies do not get. This is why 90 something percent get re-elected. We need term limits bad.

    5. The nominating process leaves me with very few chances to vote for the candidate of _my_ choice. It doesn’t help when an incumbent has one of the two major party slots sewn up long before the primary – and nearly always, that incumbent is well-practiced in doing the opposite of what his supporters think he’s doing.

  2. I used to believe that. Not anymore. And as usual CA is the case study.

    CA’s problem IMO is the legislature is the same size it was in 1880 when the population was 800,000. Rather than expand the legislature and get a ton of diverse voices who can’t be herded around and thus can’t agree on much, CA decided on term limits. Now they have a tiny group of newbies dependent on big donors and party approval to get into office and on lobbyists for knowledge

    And a big representative legislature will tend to term limit anyway cuz its easier to challenge

    1. I think expansion of the US House is long overdue. And term limits is probably not a great idea for the House. The Senate might be better with a 3 term limit though.

    2. I’ve heard about similar issues in other states (e.g., Nebraska). Essentially the system is such a labyrinth that nobody can figure out how to work it until their terms limits are up, so everyone leans the lobbyists, admins, etc. who don’t have term limits. However, I haven’t seen any hard data…just anecdotes.

  3. So not allowing us to vote for the candidate of our choice is Libertarian?

    You can write in whomever you like. Doesn’t mean that person is eligible to make or enforce laws for everyone else.

    1. Good thing I quoted. That was supposed to be a reply.

    2. Ah, you beat me to it.

      1. Oh well. It was said two different ways to help clarify the point.

  4. Frankly, the experience in California with state office term limits doesn’t show any change I can see. They just turn to lobbyists, or they run for some other office.

    The only effective term limits would be (a) no pension, (b) no further income from any government.

    My pet scheme is to instead …

    1. Vote for contracts, and allow voters to sue for contract violations. Sure, most contracts would be pablum, but at least it would be visible pablum, and provide a written record which would be hard to dodge.

    2. Elect the top three vote getters in each representative district.

    3. Each rep would proxy the votes they personally received.

    4. Every voter could check a “volunteer” box. One from each rep district would be elected too. Whether they go to the common rep chamber or form their own chamber doesn’t matter to me.

    5. Every rep could introduce their own bills. Each bill has to be publicly visible for a 30 day review period. At the end of that review period, if 2/3 of reps in each chamber have signed up as approving it, it is enacted. Any changes during that review period restart the clock.

    6. If at any time,1/2 the reps in any chamber have signed up for repeal of any law, that law is immediately repealed.

    1. 4a. Volunteers would proxy either all those who checked the “volunteer” box, or all votes outside the top three.

      7. All laws sunset at the end of the next session. This provides plenty time for the legislature to renew laws with deliberation.

      8. Any law found defective for vagueness, internally inconsistent, inconsistently enforced, unexpected consequences more than some small value, or otherwise defective, as judged (without possible appeal) by a truly random jury, would also be repealed in its entirety. This primarily prevents legislators lumping all sunsetting laws into one for simple renewal.

  5. >>former President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke) support term limits

    limits for thee, not for me

    1. Obama and Trump are subject to term limits.

      1. unchallenged term limits yes

  6. While I like the “idea” of term limits, I don’t think they would be any kind of a panacea for what ails Congress. If the experiment in California is any example, it would have no effect at all. Perhaps even a negative effect.

    I wonder, also, would this not require a constitutional amendment? If CA cannot put term limits on US Congress-folk, since it limits the right of the voters to choose who represent them, can Congress simply decree, by passing a law, that THEY can impose the same limits on citizens?

    In the end, the answer is SMALLER government, not “rearranging” the players.

    1. If the experiment in California is any example, it would have no effect at all. Perhaps even a negative effect.

      In CA all it really means is that when your term limit hits, you go run in a neighboring district.

    2. I wonder, also, would this not require a constitutional amendment? If CA cannot put term limits on US Congress-folk, since it limits the right of the voters to choose who represent them, can Congress simply decree, by passing a law, that THEY can impose the same limits on citizens?
      Possibly. It depends on how the Nazgul interpret Article I Section 5.

      Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members …

      1. Yep. And there is a possible conflict between that and the first Amendment, both on grounds of free speech and right-to-associate. Might be fun to watch. But, in the end, I don’t imagine we would see any real gain from term limits. A two-term limit might only result in congress critters spending their entire allotted time trying to get elected to a different post instead of reelected to their current one.

  7. The best way to shrink government is to prohibit it from initiating force.

    1. But without government “leaders” being able to initiate force, they would serve no purpose at all…. oh, I see what you did there.

  8. The two fundamental problems with the logic in the case for term limits as an effective strategy for limiting government are 1) that it assumes that the problematic part of government is the legislator itself, and not the laws that he leaves behind, and 2) that it assumes, without explaining why or how or offering up any evidence in support, that personal ambition can somehow be removed entirely from politics by arbitrarily shortening the span of any given job in a politician’s career – something that, as several other posters above have pointed out, is utterly refuted by the case study of California.

    Admittedly, I haven’t yet listened to the podcast, but I don’t anticipating this guy saying anything that will somehow challenge or address either of these two fundamental flaws of logic. Politicians throughout history have always, by and large, been driven primarily by ambition. Every attempt to change this fundamental fact of human nature – including term limits – has shown itself to be a fools errand. If you really want to “limit the term” that damage can be done, forget about the lawmaker, and place the term limit on the law itself.

    1. LOL. Yeah, I can see several advantages to that. A second possibility? Congress meets every two years for three months, with a commensurate decrease in pay and benefits. Maybe then they would have to concentrate on vital things, and not “meddle” quite so much? A lot of State legislature have such schedules. Those State legislatures still function, amazingly enough.

      1. To be on the safe side, they should meet in Topeka KS in an unheated barn during January thru March; or Big Bend TX in an un-airconditioned Quonset hut during July thru September.

        1. Not bad! Or they can meet in Redding, CA, in early August, where the temperature regularly exceeds 110 F. They can meet in the parking lot. No shade permitted.

          1. Barefoot.

  9. Rather than term limits, I’d rather see law limits. Like the debt ceiling. We’re supposed to have a government of limited powers, let’s limit the number of laws. The law book’s full – you want a new law, you’ll have to repeal an old one to make room.

    1. Yeah. Or alternatively, 1/3 minority to repeal, 2/3 majority to pass (or something like that)

  10. I would recommend having the president, the senate and all members of congress have a six year term with the right to be re-elected only once.
    This way, more profoundly stupid people than those who were in office previously will get a chance to fuck up our country even more.

  11. Forget term limits. Make Congress a low paying part time job again.

    1. Or just outlaw any and all ‘contributions’ to politicians, current and past.
      Fantasy constitutional amendment: “the members of the legislature, judiciary, and executive, shall be fully subject to all laws and regulations, without exception”.

      1. This isn’t about punishing the current members of Congress. Reduce the rate at which Congress can pass knew laws and you limit their ability to affect outcomes for businesses and individuals.

        Limit their ability to affect outcomes and the donors get less bang for the buck and a large chunk of the money currently infesting the political process goes elsewhere.

    2. And, if they are currently in an elected position, they need to resign before they start running for another office. No more falling back to their senate/governor/… job when they don’t win the presidency.

      It would be interesting to see how many would run when they have to give up their current position.

  12. Perhaps, instead of “term limits” for punishing wayward congress people, maybe we should consider “terminating limbs?” (sarcasm font off)

  13. My biggest concern about term limits is the inevitable rise of “True Believers” that will rise to power without them. People who believe in changing everything just for the sake of changing things. People who blow off the concept of “give and take” compromises and see it as their duty to shove whatever crap policy they can down the people’s throats.

  14. “The Libertarian Case for Term Limits” is like “The Libertarian Case for Border Walls” or “The Libertarian Case for State-Run Health Care”: all of those things represent the short-term destruction of liberty, in the *hope* that they would produce outcomes that would lead to a long-term increase in liberty. Who knows, term limits may eventually lead to libertopia. But they do represent destruction of liberty NOW – taking away people’s legitimate choices, by force of law – on an arrogant belief that the state can change people’s behavior to favor a particular outcome. And that’s a fundamentally unlibertarian way to think about these things, IMO.

    So, no, I’ll pass.

    1. So have no qualifications because any would limit the people’s choice?

  15. Several years ago a statistical psychologist I know had done a big data examination of the spending habits of congress critters. He determined whether they were net spenders or savers by using GAO numbers for how much revenue a legislative act would add to or reduce the Federal budget. Doing this allowed him to attach spending or saving numbers to each year of a Congressperson’s career.

    He had gone in with the hypothesis that Republicans would be better savers than Dems. Nope. Zero correlation between party and spending patterns.

    In the end he found one factor that correlated strongly with whether they were net savers or spenders: time in office. Nothing else mattered. The longer they were in office the more they spent. Those who were net savers either didn’t last long (presumably because they weren’t bringing home the bacon) or converted into spenders, and you could see it over time. (And, no, Ron Paul doesn’t count here: He disingenuously voted against all sorts of things, but still added spending to bills he intended to vote against, knowing full well they would pass, so even he got in on the game.)

    What this result suggests is that it is fundamentally naive to think that spending will ever be reined in without term limits. The incentives work the wrong way. So Chemjeff and others can talk about how term limits would impact their freedom, but the externality of them exercising their freedom to keep a Congress critter in office is that Congress will screw them over every time, and it doesn’t seem that there is a realistic way around that because elected officials don’t survive unless they play the game. This is Charlie Brown and Lucy time, with us as the chumps who fall for pulling away the football every single time and still claim we need the freedom to kick that ball.

    Maybe this says we’re screwed no matter what, but this seems like a typical libertarian issue: We hate the system, but our commitment to principles ensures that we are stuck with the results we don’t want.

    1. Except that at the federal level, committees/leadership/party have long had a complete stranglehold on everything. So a study like that is not really measuring time in office but power over the House itself and using time in office as a proxy for that. Term limits would in fact centralize even more power in committees/leadership/party.

      Even the size of the House relative to the Senate – the reason why the House has been fixed at 435 for so long – which in turn then determines the size of the Electoral College and the ‘manageability’ of Presidential elections – has been subordinated to control by the political parties rather than by the Constitution itself since about 1880.

      Structural control of constitutional institutions (House/Senate/Exec) by extra-constitutional institutions (parties) is the true problem here. That probably requires a Constitutional convention to fix – which won’t happen on that issue since those same two parties control the states too.

      He who controls the two political parties in the US, controls the Constitution itself. And that ain’t gonna be fixed by ‘term limits’ on the junior level monkeys.

  16. Term Limits won’t fix a thing. There is no end to dimwits, players, and scoundrels wanting public office for all the perks and madding. Kick out the scum after two terms, the lazy and ignorant voters will just elect more scum. The downside to term limits comes when GOOD congresscritters are FORCED TO LEAVE after only two terms. When that rare creature a GOOD elected representative, is finally found and put into office, the good he can do will now be cut short.

    You wanna shrink government? Here are two things to DO to make that happen.
    First.. reduce the pay for all elected federal lawmakers to the US Median Family Income for the time the elected one serves. No pension, no free medical care for life,… WHY should one’s managing to hornswoggle enough voters to “win” result in setting one up for life at two to four times the standard of living the rest of us, on averate, must endure? Oh, and while we’re at it, remove the budget allowances to “remodel” their assigned offices….. WHY should we taxpayers be forced to shell out tens of thousands every time a different critter manages to win the jackpot? These guys are PUBLIC SERVANTS why do they “need” to be treated like some kind of royalty? Got a desk, another for one staff, basic government issued computer stuff, a loo, a small kitchenette for breaks, maybe a 20 foot square meeting room? That’s enough to get yuor job done. This isn’t a showmanship gig, its a SERVICE gig.

    Second, begin at the letter A and systematically go through every federal alphabet soup agency and dismantle every one that does not have a specific mandate to exist in the constitution. Start with Ag.. then QUICKLY move onto ATF, and keep marching till we get to Zulu Patrol……. once that’s done, our annual budget would be cut to less than a quarter what it is today.
    Unless a department or agency have a clear mandate IN the Constitution, dissolve it. USPS, military, Waights and Measures, Treasury, State, the COurts (make certain Art 3 Sec 2 Par 2 is strictely adhered to.. no more Judge Robart in Seattle huffing and puffing and trying to blow Trump’s House down. Don’t understand what I mean? READ that section of the Constitution, then look at his decision.. pay particular attention to the named parties to that case Robart illegally took up. It was one of them about Trump’s EO limiting or halting entry from a few countries that had no system in place to allow any level of vetting/evaluating people seeking entry here from those nationis.

  17. I live in California. We enacted term limits. This had two results:

    1. By the time a legislator has actually learned how to do his job — helping his constituents negotiate the bureaucracy and negotiating with other legislators — he has to leave and do something else.

    2. Almost as soon as a legislator (or Governor or State AG or whatever) takes office, he is looking around for another job. Legislating is a job like any other, and it takes time and effort to write understandable laws (and to understand what those laws will do) and negotiate to get them passed. If you’re already “circulating your resume”, you aren’t giving the job your full attention.

    Worse yet, they don’t just “go back to the farm” (or to write a book, as HST did). They go look for other government jobs. So an Assemblyman runs for the House of Representatives. A Mayor looks for a job as County Assessor or DA or state Attorney General, etc.

    And if by some miracle they can’t get elected to any other job, they go on a corporate payroll — as lobbyists.

    Yes, we have problems. No, term limits are not the (or even a) solution.

  18. “…former President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke) support term limits…”
    Well, with such intellectual heavy hitters approving of it, it must be a good idea.
    Congress critters take years to learn the ropes, and even longer to become experts in a given field. All term limits would do is transfer power to unelected staff who are not term limited but know how to get policies enacted. We already have term limits, just not universal ones. The limit of a politician’s term is right up to the point where he loses an election.

  19. With strict term limits, Ron and Rand Paul would have been prevented from representing the libertarian point of view during their whole careers, just to be replaced my more “run of the mill” republicans.

    1. Ron and Rand Paul could not represent the libertarian point of view without being 4 term politicians?

  20. I agree but now it would take those who have been in office for decades and wield the power to vote to end their careers.

  21. The Libertarian case for term limits is to get tiny and limited government.

    Including but not limited to:
    1. Term limits
    2. Part time Legislating
    3. Lower salary for government workers and politicians
    4. No pensions
    5. Making it a crime for politicians to violate their oaths of office
    6. Making it a crime to violate the Constitution

    Ultimately it requires an informed populace to keep government in line.

  22. Sure couldn’t hurt! Out of all the current critters in Congress I can’t think of a reason to keep a single one employed. Might be an argument against if they actually performed well or even at all. But alas that is not the case and hasn’t been for a long time. Collectively we give Congress 10% or lower approval. Individually we give OUR politicians high marks. IE our guy is not the problem it is your guy. Only to then re-elect them all to go back and accomplish nothing. Term limits might end an actual good politicians career early but I would rather that and be sure the terrible ones of all states get changed out sooner than later.

  23. Become a Voluntaryist, detatch from government, don’t vote, resist paying taxes, leave government to those who worship it while it self-destructs, don’t worry, be happy.

Please to post comments