How Long Are RI’s Legislators in Office and What Gets Them Out?

After a Rhode Map Live event where the Speaker of the House said there was nothing to be done locally about climate change, Central Falls city councilperson and candidate for RI Senate Jonathon Acosta responded by suggesting we should have term limits.

Acosta joins the ranks of former state Senator Dawson Hodgson and Rep. John Lombardi in pushing for that reform.

Similarly, presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer have both advocated for term limits, prompting Prof. Seth Masket of the University of Denver and director of its Center on American Politics to write up a blog post explaining why the political science consensus is that term limits are kind of a bust. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to highlight one aspect of it:

Interestingly, term limits don’t even seem to limit time in office all that much. Jordan Butcher and Aaron Kushner tracked the careers of thousands of state legislators over many years. What they found was that, on average, legislators in term-limited states stay in office longer; they’re more likely to finish out the full time for which they’re eligible.

That time limit is is an interesting thing, as in conversation on Twitter, Acosta later pushed for longer terms, either for a total of twelve or sixteen years in office (longer than the six or eight total years suggested by Lombardi or Hodgson, respectively). That prompted me to think about how long our legislators have been in office.

It turns out, not all that long:

Years Rhode Island State Reps Were ElectedYears Rhode Island State Senators Were Elected

Looking at the stats, 74% of the Rhode Island House and 60% of the Rhode Island Senate were elected in the last decade (e.g. 2010 or later). Both the median representative and the median senator has served seven years in office (elected in 2012). On average, representatives have served just short of 8 years and senators just over 10 years of office.

If the research cited by Masket holds, we’d expect to see the median and average rise under the term limit scenario proposed by Acosta, and the percentage of each chamber elected in the last 10 years decrease. And hey, that could be good for floor managers, but the specific complaint Acosta had of politicians being detached from their constituents wouldn’t be significantly altered.

Indeed, it could get worse, as in their last term, most legislators would no longer face the threat of election (many would be aiming to go into lobbying) and would no longer have the incentive to listen to their constituents.

The threat of election is actually a really powerful tool. Members of the General Assembly have taken out their signature papers, seen that they drew a challenger, gone “why bother?” and retired by never collecting signatures (e.g., Joe Trillo). If we actually want to make politicians more responsive to their constituents, we need ways to promote people running for office. The threat of election needs to be present at every step of their career.

We could accomplish that by doing things like making it easier to form political parties or removing the signature requirement to run for office. We could allow child care to be paid for with campaign funds. We could increase legislative pay so it’s worthwhile to be a legislator for someone who isn’t a retiree, a teacher, or a lawyer.

There certainly places where it fails, but the current system is currently more effective at removing people from office than term limits would be, and with fewer of the negative effects term limits bring. And it’s a lot easier to reform it into a better system.


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