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Term Length and the Effort of Politicians

Development Challenge

Effective governance is crucial for development, as it impacts the allocation of national resources, the provision of essential public services such as health and education, and the promotion of security. In the case that a government fails to be accountable to its citizens through low effort levels, corruption, or fraudulent use of resources, the chain of service provision is disrupted, proving detrimental to social and economic outcomes. As a democratic government serves to represent the interests of the people, evidence on how to best optimize the governance of an electoral system is invaluable. One component of effective governance is determining the optimal term length that allows politicians to maximize their potential. On one hand, short terms can promote effort as the "evaluation period" of re-election is closer in time; on the other hand, long terms allow  politicians to capture returns on specific investments made during their tenure, incentivizing effort. This study compares two term lengths to determine which one best incentivizes politician effort.


Argentina has a rich and volatile political history that makes it a unique country of study for political science research.  The government operates as a Federal Republic with twenty-four legislative districts and a National Congress with two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Argentine political development provides an ideal setting for evaluating term length, as random allocation of terms occurred in both the House and the Senate within the last half-century. In December 1983, Argentina transitioned to a democracy after a period of authoritarian military rule, requiring all House members to be elected at once. In order to stagger renewal of terms, legislators were randomly assigned to two- or four-year terms. Furthermore, in 2001, constitutional reform required the renewal of the entire Senate, and so all 71 Senators were elected and randomly allocated to two, four, or six year terms. These natural experiments allow researchers to evaluate the effect of term length on politician effort in two different contexts.

Evaluation Strategy

In their evaluation, the authors identified three mechanisms that link term length to effort. The first mechanism is the “accountability effect” which states that shorter terms increase legislative effort, since the reward of re-election is closer. The second mechanism is the “campaigning effect” which states that shorter terms lower legislative effort due to the difficulties of simultaneously legislating and campaigning. Finally, the third is the “payback horizon effect” which states that short terms lower legislative effort, as there is a shorter time period for politicians to reap the rewards of their effort. Overall, the “accountability effect” positively changes legislator effort during shorter terms, while the “campaigning effect” and “payback effect” negatively changes legislator effort during shorter terms. Utilizing the data from the House and Senate, the authors determined which effects dominate.

The House sample size consisted of 246 legislators across a two-year period (February 1984 through December 1985), creating a total sample of 492 observations. Measures of effort included 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, number of these bills that were approved by the legislator. The Senate sample size consisted of 65 legislators over a two-year period (December 2001 through December 2003), comprising a total sample size of 130 observations. Measures of effort included floor attendance, number of bills introduced by the legislator, and number of bills ratified by the legislator. In both samples, additional characteristics were controlled for, including age, gender, occupation, education level, distance from the legislator’s province to the capital, whether the legislator was a first time legislator, whether the legislator belonged to a majority party, and whether the legislator occupied a leadership position.

Results and Policy Implications

The results indicate that assignment to a longer term resulted in a significantly higher effort level than assignment to a shorter term. In the House, legislators serving four-year terms exhibited higher effort than those serving the two-year terms. Results were positive for all six outcome measures, and statistically significant for four: floor attendance, committee attendance, committee bills signed, and bills approved. In comparison to other factors, the effect of term length was approximately one and a half times stronger than the effect of a university degree or a legislative leadership position on legislator effort.  Term length effect was also approximately as strong as the effect of majority party membership on effort. These comparisons serve to highlight the relative importance of term length on effort.  In the Senate, as was true in the House, assignment to a longer term (four or six years) also resulted in a significantly higher effort output than assignment to a shorter term (two years).

Data from both the House and Senate therefore suggest that the “campaigning” and “payback” effects were stronger in magnitude and served to counteract the “accountability effect”. To further examine this, the authors conducted a series of statistical tests that identified the primary mechanism responsible for the effort differential as the “payback effect”. Longer terms therefore increased effort, not because of the lack of campaign distractions, but because longer terms allow for a greater payback horizon. These results highlight the importance of term length in maximizing politician effort across two different contexts and suggest that term length should be a fundamental consideration during constitutional design. The issue of term length is relevant not only to public office but also to the private sector, where both incentives and accumulation of firm-specific human capital are important. This evaluation approach can, in turn, be used as a model for studies extending to other political settings and workforce analyses more broadly.