15 states currently impose term limits on state legislators. Three limit representatives and senators to six years, three to twelve years, and the rest impose an eight year limit. The other 35 states, including Wisconsin, have no limits on terms of public office.
There are several popular rationales for term limits, including the argument that representatives serve the people best when they do not have a long future career in politics to protect. There is no doubt that the time members of Congress spend manically fundraising and courting special interests to finance their campaigns prevents many of them from dedicating heart and mind to crafting policy and helping constituents.
Not only does eternal campaigning take time away from legislating, but it changes the character of representatives. Campaigns scare away the nuance that we want at the disposal of our policy-makers.
The same, to a certain extent, is true at the state level. Well before he lost his first election in 40 years last November, Rep. Marlin Schneider told me that the endless pursuit of campaign contributions was the most significant change to the legislature that had taken place since he was first elected in 1970.
Schneider would probably not be considered a good advertisement for career politicians either. In addition to living most of the year in Madison, far away from his constituents, the Democrat from Wisconsin Rapids was widely dismissed as a kook whose obsession with personal privacy matters signaled his disconnect from the people who elected him.
And yet, in state government especially, imposing term limits could serve to make government less professional, as well as less effective. No matter how partisan and cynical the debate on controversial policy appears, the day-to-day function of government, including constituent services and less controversial policy, most likely benefits from the expertise of legislative veterans.
And of course, term limits by no means extinguish the political ambitions of state legislators. If anything, they beckon every lowly backbencher to start planning a race for higher office, lest they finish their term of service and fade away into the obscure history of Wisconsin legislative history.