Research Spotlight: Going it Alone: The Adverse Effect of Executive Term Limits on Bargaining

Numerous scholars and participants in the political process affirm that highly autonomous executives are a threat to the balance of power and democratic stability more generally. This widely held belief is predicated upon the fact that extensive executive power will lead to a breakdown in the balance of powers between the executive and the legislature. Given the fact that balance of powers is a cornerstone of American democracy, we see many attempts to limit executive power at both the federal and state level in order to mitigate any potential imbalance. 

Although presidential term limits were not established formally until 1947, gubernatorial term limits have existed since the American Revolution in large part because of the colonists’ aversion to the governors appointed by the British crown. In my recent article published in State and Local Government Review, I challenge the assumption that term limits constrain executive power and create normatively desirable democratic outcomes. I do this by examining the effects of executive term limits on inter-branch bargaining, demonstrated by the use of unilateral action and thereby shed light on some potentially concerning implications for governance in states where governors are term limited.

Although more recent explorations of state executive power have begun to emerge, most extant research on unilateral executive action focuses on the president. Yet there is much more variation in the character of term limit laws among American governors than among presidents, making states a better laboratory for research. I argue that term limits pose an obstacle to executive bargaining through two mechanisms—(1) term limits constrain the executive’s tenure potential making him less concerned with maintaining a working relationship with the legislature; and (2) term limits constrain the executive’s ability to gain experience negotiating with the legislature, thereby making bargaining more costly. 

The theory is based on the assumption that as an executive’s expected success from bargaining with the legislature declines, she has greater incentive to take unilateral action. One of the primary mechanisms through which term limits affect the executive’s propensity to bargain is through their effect on the executive’s tenure potential: her potential to remain in office. Presidential scholars have little reason to theorize about the impact of tenure potential since all U.S. presidents serving after Harry Truman have been limited to two four-year terms in office, ensuring that there is no variation across presidents in the potential to remain in office. An executive’s tenure potential is just one of two means through which term limits influence an executive’s incentive to act unilaterally. His experience in office is a second important factor, since greater experience should enhance his expected success from bargaining, and thus reduce his incentive to take unilateral action.

Estimating both the effects of tenure potential and experience in office on an executive’s propensity to take unilateral action is a challenge. Greater time served should give an executive more experience in bargaining with the legislature and thus less of a need to take unilateral action; but at the same time, greater time served (when combined with a term limit) should bring him closer to being forced out of office and make him less concerned with alienating the legislature by taking unilateral action. These competing effects are difficult to parse out empirically because the U.S. president and most governors are limited to no more than two consecutive four-year terms in office, and for these executives, experience (number of years served) is perfectly inversely related with tenure potential (maximum number of years remaining in office).  However, by expanding attention to include, as well, governors with no term limit—each of whom have greater tenure potential than any term-limited governor—I can overcome this empirical challenge.

Note: Among states with 2 consecutive 4-year terms, entities vary with regard to whether this is a lifetime term limit or if incumbents can serve again upon sitting out of office for a period. Additionally, among states with no gubernatorial term limit, only two states’ governors serve unlimited two-year terms, while the rest serve unlimited four-year terms. 

My statistical analysis suggests that when the executive has high tenure potential, and thus can foresee a long future with the legislature, she will be less inclined to use unilateral action and more likely to bargain. In addition, executives take less unilateral action as they gain more experience bargaining through continued service in office. I find that executive term limits promote unilateral executive action and are an impediment to executive bargaining because they restrict the executive’s tenure potential and force her out of office when she is most willing and able to bargain with the legislature.

With an eye towards separation of powers systems there are and must be normative implications related to the relative power of the chief executive vis a vis the legislature. The implications of eliminating executive term limits at the state level may be especially concerning since there is quite a bit of variance in both executive powers and legislative powers across states. A fair number of state legislatures are part time and some meet every other year. Governance in a state with a part time legislature and a governor with high levels of tenure potential may look very different than a state with both a full-time legislature and a term limited governor. There is no clear-cut answer here except to consider the complexity that comes along with this variance in power across states. My results suggest that a non-term limited governor is more likely to engage in inter-branch bargaining. However, propensity to bargain with the legislature is only one standard by which to judge governance. Whether or not the states with non-term limited governors and comparatively weak legislatures actually have objectively “better” public policy is a question I leave for future research.

Dr. Alexandra Cockerham is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at Florida State University. Her research focuses on executive power, with an eye toward the limitations that institutions impose on directly elected executives. You can learn more about Dr. Cockerham here.

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