JACK SPENCER: Terms limits, an ugly improvement

Problems and solutions: The majority of the population still supports term limits, believing that career polititians become disconnected from their constituents. However, term limits are not the end of all problems as, like most solutions, come with their own issues. (Courtesy photo)
Problems and solutions: The majority of the population still supports term limits, believing that career polititians become disconnected from their constituents. However, term limits are not the end of all problems as, like most solutions, come with their own issues. (Courtesy photo)

Michigan has been living with term limits for 15 years. Admittedly, it hasn’t been pretty. In many ways the law simply substituted a new set of flaws for those that had previously existed. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the law has brought about positive changes.

In 1992, nearly 59 percent of Michigan voters passed term limits. Under the law, the number of times a person can be elected governor is restricted to two terms, the number of times allowed was also set at two terms for the Senate and at three terms for the House of Representatives.  This didn’t really start affecting the legislature until 1998.

Lansing political insiders overwhelmingly oppose the law and started calling it a failure, literally, before the first group of term-limited lawmakers took office. This attitude has been poisoning the well of ideas for adjusting the law ever since.

Not surprisingly, polls show that the only area where a majority of voters support ending or changing term limits is concentrated near Lansing. Complaints about the effects of term limits are usually valid. But so were the complaints about state government before term limits were enacted.

Much of what term limits were designed to achieve has not been accomplished. Most of the legislators elected under term limits cannot be truly described as citizen lawmakers taking a break from their careers to serve. Once they become part of government they either stay in government or stay close to government. Generally, they either move on to other government posts or get hired by lobbying groups or associations heavily involved with government.

What term limits has actually done is speed up the political game of musical chairs. Lawmakers are pretty quick at figuring out what post or job they want to try for next. While this is maddening to many, it is actually a positive aspect of term limits. It is this constant long range planning that forces lawmakers to keep listening to the voters.

Prior to term limits, lawmakers could stay in one legislative seat for many years; often with little fear of being voted out of office. In essence they carved out their own comfortable power bases. After serving a Senate or House district two or three terms, the lawmaker’s name carried so much weight back home that it became difficult to dislodge them. As professional politicians, they had more freedom to periodically disregard the will of their district voters.

In short, they knew their boundaries and understood just how much they could get away with. A major part of the legislative game back then was to trade off “bad” (unpopular within their district) votes with other lawmakers.

Now, with term limits, a different factor plays a role in preventing lawmakers from being unseated. Quality candidates that might see the opportunity to defeat a vulnerable incumbent have less incentive to try. Why attempt to unseat an incumbent right away when term limits will force the incumbent out of office in a couple of years anyway? It’s almost always easier to win an election when the incumbent can’t run again.

But it is worth re-emphasizing that this term-limit-created dynamic only provides short-term security. If the lawmaker is eying another elective office down the road, any “bad” votes they take can come back and haunt their efforts two, four or six years later.

Add all this up on a tally sheet and the result is that term limits have caused major changes to how the political game is played. The mechanics are now different — but are the voters served any better as result?

The answer is “yes” in some ways and “no” in other ways.

On the “no” side there is the detrimental effect term limits have had on leadership. Invariably, freshman House members begin jockeying to become the next House Speaker before they even know where the bathrooms are located in the Capitol building. This situation is less blatant in the state Senate, but it has taken a toll there as well. Michigan has had some recent legislative leaders who made blunders that more seasoned legislators would almost certainly have avoided.

Perhaps the best example of this came in 2007, when state government nearly shut down. There is not enough space in this column to recount all of the miscalculations and flat-out mistakes that led to that debacle. Some Lansing insiders referred to 2007 as “amateur hour,” and pointed to it as evidence of what term limits had wrought.

Interestingly, their observations were not without merit, but only when just half of the story is told. Due to term limits, the untested legislative leaders lacked the experience and confidence needed to ignore much of advice some of those same Lansing insiders were giving them.

The professional lawmakers that dominated the legislature prior to term limits would probably have avoided the 2007 disaster. They were far more adept at (forgive the term) covering their butts and preventing government from looking so inept.

Yet, it was frustration with those old professional lawmakers that caused Michigan voters to overwhelmingly pass term limits in the first place. Voters rightly sensed that the longer a person serves in government the more they tend to view the universe from a strictly governmental point of view. Over time, they start believing that what is good for government must also be good for state residents.

This insular attitude leads to a predicable end. Without constant pressure from the voters, government ceases to serve the people and primarily serves itself.

Under term limits, the legislature repeatedly receives fresh waves of new lawmakers who are not imbued with the “government first” mentality. This, above all else, has made term limits worthwhile, in spite of all of its flaws.

Even before term limits state government spent most of its time attempting to correct its own previous errors. Unfortunately term limits have not altered this situation. Still, it’s important to remember that most of Michigan’s big problems started back when professional politicians were in charge.

Economist Pat Anderson drafted Michigan’s term limit law. He has said that he would not necessarily oppose attempts to make some changes to it. However, he has also said that he has yet to see a serious effort to change the law that didn’t, in one way or another, involve trying to fool the voters.

Here’s the truth about Michigan’s term limit issue. Legislation introduced that would alter term limits and only affect future lawmakers always fails to get enough support to gain passage. Obviously, unless current lawmakers can personally benefit as a result, they have no interest in making a change.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.