Should Politicians Have Longer Terms in Office?

A new study by Associate Professor Ernesto Dal Bó determines longer term lengths make politicians more productive. Beyond politics, the findings may be applied to business organizations and projects that take years to complete.

Dal Bó found that lawmakers who serve longer terms are more effective, not because they don’t have to worry about early campaigning, but because they are better able to realize the rewards of hard work over a long period of time compared to colleagues serving shorter terms.

“It’s OK to give people incentives and monitor their accountability, but we cannot make life a continual accountability situation," says Dal Bó, whose research focuses on the methods of political economy. “This is not to say we should give jobs for life. But over some range of time, there are gains to be made extending term lengths.”

Dal Bó and co-author Martín Rossi, an assistant professor at the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina, outline their results in a working paper titled "Term Lengths and Political Performance.” Their findings are based on performance data from members of Argentina's House of Representatives and Senate after the end of the country's dictatorship in 1983.

Their results run counter to traditional economic organization models, which typically indicate that employee effort declines over the passage of guaranteed time on the job, according to Dal Bó. Those models show there is a correlation between the duration of time and attentiveness to work. As a position’s longevity increases, so do the incentives to shirk one’s responsibilities.

But Dal Bó’s research found opposite results. He and Rossi considered two possible explanations for why longer terms could make sense. With very short terms, politicians may spend most of their time distracted with campaigning, or longer time horizons may offer a better investment scenario for the politician.

“When you have a longer time horizon ahead of you, you will invest more, put in more effort. Why? Because you expect to reap the rewards from more effort," Dal Bó explains.

The researchers took advantage of the end of the Argentine dictatorship to observe an entirely new legislature: 254 representatives elected at the same time to serve four-year terms without term limits.

The other intriguing aspect was the Argentine constitutional requirement that every two years, the House must renew half of its members. A lottery determined who would face re-election after two years and who would have a four-year initial term. The researchers say this randomization created an exogenous — or independently external — variation in term lengths that only strengthens the credibility of the paper’s results.

Dal Bó and Rossi compared legislative performance metrics over the legislators' first two years. The question: “Were the four-year term officials working more than the two-year officials?”

In addition to conducting interviews, they used six performance measures: floor attendance; committee attendance; number of committee bills in which the legislator participated; number of times the legislator spoke on the floor; number of bills introduced by the legislator; and the number of those bills that was approved.

There wasn't a single metric in which the two-year legislators outperformed the four-year ones, Dal Bó and Rossi found. Furthermore, the study found legislators on the four-year track work harder than those on the two-year track only if their re-election is not a foregone conclusion.

“The effects are driven by those on shakier electoral grounds. Perhaps shrinking term lengths could be a good idea from the accountability perspective,” says Dal Bó, “but one must give people time to invest effort and learn.”