The Political Economy of Congressional Term Limits

44 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 1998


From 1995 to 1997 the U.S. Congress made repeated attempts to limit the number of terms Representatives and Senators can serve. This paper is an empirical examination of this legislative history. Using spatial analysis, I generate two hypotheses: 1) term limits will redistribute political capital within the legislature; and 2) legislators do not represent their constituents' interests in voting on term limits. Roll call votes in both chambers are estimated with a logit model to test the two hypotheses. Regression results indicate that legislator characteristics are significant predictors of their voting behavior. Specifically, older, male, Republican legislators with relatively low tenure favor term limits. Contrarily, younger, female, tenured Democrats tend to oppose them. However, in pursuing their own interests, legislators are constrained by the parochial interests of their relevant constituencies. In particular, electoral security is inversely related to legislators' votes on term limits. Using aggregate data and anecdotal evidence, the hypothesis that term limits redistribute power within the legislature is upheld, while the shirking hypothesis is partly rejected. Congressmen pursue their own political capital subject to the interests of their constituents. I discuss the importance of institutional comparisons between the chambers of Congress, as well as implications of the empirical results for different aspects of public choice theory.

JEL Classification: D72, D78, H1, H3

Suggested Citation

Lopez, Edward J., The Political Economy of Congressional Term Limits. Available at SSRN: or

Edward J. Lopez (Contact Author)

Western Carolina University ( email )

College of Business
Forsyth 224C
Cullowhee, NC 28723
United States


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