Term limits remain popular, but other issues impact voter support (News OK)

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board

TERM limits remain popular with voters, but that doesn’t always mean those same voters will automatically oppose an incumbent after a specific number of years.

In Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, was first elected vowing to serve no more than six years, or three House terms. This year, Mullin announced he would run for a fourth term, and discussed his decision to abandon his previous pledge.

Jarrin Jackson, a military veteran who challenged Mullin in the 2016 primary, has promised to do the same in 2018 and has focused on term limits. Jackson has signed a pledge with U.S. Term Limits, promising that if elected he will cosponsor and vote for a constitutional term-limits amendment restricting House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms.

U.S. Term Limits notes a 2013 Gallup poll found 75 percent of adults support limiting congressional terms. The concept enjoyed majority support from members of all political parties and across all generations.

Yet incumbent lawmakers still win far more elections than they lose, and when voters do oust an incumbent, the driving factors typically go well beyond length of service.

Furthermore, the imposition of term limits in state legislatures has neither been as harmful as critics warned nor as beneficial as supporters hoped.

In 1990, Oklahomans approved a constitutional amendment limiting state lawmakers to no more than 12 years in the state House and/or Senate combined. That law took effect in 2004.

But in 2014 when the Oklahoma Policy Institute analyzed data on years of service, it found term limits had only marginal effect on the typical length of service in the Legislature. The average tenure for a House member in 1978 was 6.89 years, compared with 6.65 years in 2014. The impact was greater in the Senate, although still not as much as stereotypes would suggest. In the Senate, the average length of service fell from 10.13 years in 1978 to 6.54 years in 2014.

In 1978, half of House members had six years of experience or less. In 2014, the House median was actually higher — eight years. In the Senate, the median experience was eight years in 1978, and seven years in 2014.

In many election years, term limits play only a limited role in producing legislative turnover. That was the case in 2014, when just seven of 101 House lawmakers were forced out by term limits but 21 lawmakers didn’t seek re-election.

Those who blame term limits for causing loss of institutional memory in legislative bodies are overstating their case. Only a handful of lawmakers ever possessed such knowledge.

At the same time, the influx of new members has not dramatically improved the Legislature, despite the strong hopes of term limit supporters. The dysfunction of the past few legislative sessions in Oklahoma, even as many new members have begun their service, is exhibit A.

Oklahomans still strongly support term limits, having imposed new limits on statewide officials as recently as 2010. But that hasn’t translated into an automatic anti-incumbent mood after a set number of years.

When Jackson faces Mullin in next year’s primary, Mullin’s term limits pledge may play a role in voters’ decisions. But other issues will almost certainly have greater sway.




Margaret (Maggie) den Harder obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Theology from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from the Pacific Northwest area of Washington state, Maggie has called Tulsa home for the past 8 years. Since living in Tulsa, Maggie has worked in the legal field, higher education administration, and the nonprofit sector as well as actively volunteering in the community. Maggie also recently spent time at the City of Tulsa as a consultant and wrote the content for Resilient Tulsa, an action-oriented strategy designed to better equity in Tulsa. Through her work, community involvement, and personal experiences, Maggie is interested in the intersection of the law and mental health and addiction treatment issues, preventative and diversion programs, and maternal mental health, particularly post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis. While working at Oklahoma Policy Institute as a research intern, Maggie further developed an interest in family dynamics and stability, economic security-related stress, and intergenerational trauma.

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