JACK SPENCER: The establishment and term limits

Now it’s clear; Medicaid expansion for Michigan was always in the cards.

Last winter, when Gov. Rick Snyder announced that he wanted Michigan to expand Medicaid, it was obvious that securing the necessary votes for passage wouldn’t be the obstacle. If legislative Democrats were allowed to cast most of the required votes, Medicaid expansion would be a “done deal.”

At the time, the key question was how far Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, would be willing to go the accommodate the Governor. Would they bring the measure up for a vote even without it being supported by a majority of Republican legislators?

That key question has been answered. Richardville and Bolger were determined to make sure the Governor got what he wanted. All of the drama associated with the issue over the past several months was just window-dressing. With Snyder, Richardville Bolger and virtually the entire Lansing political establishment committed to making it happen; passage of Medicaid expansion was preordained.

In June, Bolger revealed his intentions when he allowed the Democrats to provide most of the votes needed to move the measure. Last week, Richardville followed suit, as the bill was passed with only eight (including Richardville) of the 26 Senate Republicans voting “yes.”

The House still must concur with the version of the bill that the Senate passed if it is to reach Snyder’s desk. The number of Republicans voting for the measure may diminish and opponents to it might even try to derail it, but the chances of blocking the measure are extremely slim.

Contemplating how term limits impacted this year’s legislative battle over Medicaid expansion introduces an intriguing subject.

Term limits are extremely unpopular among the political establishment in Lansing. In fact, a large portion of the Lansing political establishment declared term limits “a failure” before they even got off the ground. Ironically, however, the Medicaid expansion issue demonstrated that — in some respects — term limits aid that same establishment in obtaining its goals.

Under term limits, the chances of lawmakers facing serious opposition in their re-election primaries have been reduced. Prior to term limits, a serious challenger within a House or Senate district was more likely to jump into a primary race as soon as the lawmaker in office made an unpopular vote. Now, such potential candidates are usually advised to wait a couple of years and run for the open seat created when the lawmaker is termed out.

In short, with term limits, lawmakers have less fear of an immediate backlash against them for voting against the will of their political base. Such votes could hurt them later in their careers, but the impact is less immediate.

Considering how unpopular Medicaid expansion is with the GOP base, it seems unlikely that 28 House Republicans would have been willing to vote “yes” on Medicaid expansion in June in a non-term limited environment. That alone might well have delayed the bill from moving so quickly to the Senate.

But where term limits probably had an even greater impact was in regard to leadership. Both Richardville and Bolger will be term-limited out of office at the end of next year. The dynamics of the Medicaid expansion issue could have been very different if they were not term limited and planned to seek re-election and keep their leadership positions after 2014.

If not for term limits, Bolger, in particular, would probably have appeared far more reluctant to turn to the Democrats to pass the expansion. It seems likely that he would have gone to greater lengths to demonstrate to his caucus that he did this only as an absolute last resort. Actually, that’s what he should have done anyway.

As it was, Richardville relied heavily on the “last resort” angle. He is far more experienced than Bolger and, despite term limits, operates in a manner more consistent with the way a non-term-limited lawmaker would operate. In addition, it seems clear that he was facing more real resistance to Medicaid expansion within his caucus than Bolger faced.

Just because a lawmaker votes “no” on a measure, doesn’t mean that he or she has strong convictions against it. It is probable that for many of the “no”-voting House Republicans the predominate attitude toward Medicaid expansion was the wish to “make the issue go away.” Only a handful of House Republicans strongly oppose it.

That wasn’t the situation in the Senate, where those strongly opposed to the bill appear to have constituted a larger percentage of the GOP caucus.

In a non-term-limited environment the Governor and Lansing political establishment would probably have gotten Medicaid expansion — but the road to its passage would have been different.

In the pre-term-limit era, the legislative process included a greater degree of orchestrating and vote-trading. If the Governor, Senate Majority Leader and House Speaker were all committed to see to it that a measure passed, a way would have been found to make it happen. But the process leading to its passage wouldn’t have looked the same.

The point is that term limits are not the great impediment to the Lansing establishment, that the establishment itself would have us believe. The establishment gains as much from the term limit law as it lost when it was enacted. For better or worse, it continues to get what it wants almost all of the time.

Whether or not Snyder, Richardville and Bolger will have to pay a political price for the passage of Medicaid expansion remains to be seen. Snyder probably won’t. If he had to face a serious challenger in next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, things would be different. But no such challenger seems to be waiting in the weeds.

Chances are that Snyder will win an unenthusiastic nod to be the gubernatorial nominee of his party in 2014. In the general election, his likely Democratic foe, former Congressman Mark Schauer, will surely chase the Republican base back to Snyder, in many cases as the lesser of two evils. Unless 2014 turns out to be an unusually good Democratic election year nationally, Snyder will probably win re-election.

It might be a different story with Bolger. There is some talk that he is eying a run for state Senate down the road. If that is true, his activities in support of Medical expansion could come back to haunt him. But that would only be the case if he were to face a well-financed and credible opponent in a GOP primary.

Assessing the political ramifications for Richardville is a tough call. He is serving his last term in the state legislature and might not even be looking at any future elected office.

An interesting sidelight to the Medicaid expansion story in the legislature was the performance of Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton. Colbeck did almost everything he could to try to block passage. As a last resort, he refused to cast a vote that would have created a 19-19 tie. With a 19-19 tie, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley would have cast a tie-breaking vote to secure passage. But by withholding his “no” vote, Colbeck created a 19-18 tally, under which Calley was prevented from being able to vote.

As a result of Colbeck’s maneuver, one additional Republican “yes” vote was needed to have the measure pass. In the end, Sen. Tom Casperson, R- Escanaba, switched his vote to “yes.”

Thus, Casperson will be known as the person who put the measure over the top instead of Calley. Casperson isn’t likely to pay too high of a political price for voting “yes.” He represents a predominately Democratic district and will almost certainly be re-elected. But the reason he initially voted “no” was probably because he wants to run for Congress in 2016, and the Medicaid expansion vote could hurt him then. However, Casperson is very well positioned on other key issues important to voters in Northern Michigan.

Meanwhile, Colbeck will almost surely face some flak in his caucus and in the Republican Party for forcing an additional Republican to vote “yes.” He could generally be labeled as not being a “team player.” On the other hand, both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt opened their legislative careers by openly rebelling against their caucus leaders. By doing so they made enemies in their respective political parties, but the voters weren’t bothered by it at all.

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.