Term Limits: The Best of Intentions Gone Awry
There’s a social media meme making the rounds suggesting that those who don’t like professional politicians should consider having a plumber perform their next colonoscopy. The crude inference is clear: We should place a premium on experience, education, and institutional memory. In any field, from electricians to brain surgeons, what could be more obvious? Professionalism counts.
Yet, curiously there is an incessant cultural drumbeat to install unseasoned and ill-prepared elected officials to do the people’s work. And, mind you, public policy and lawmaking affects every American. No one is spared. We’ve all heard the buzz phrases associated with term limits: “Throw the bums out!” Or on the other side, “We already have term limits — they’re called elections.” Most knowledgeable policy wonks are in agreement that term limits are an exceedingly bad idea.
Michigan, in particular, suffers from a surfeit of green lawmakers due to its stringent term-limit requirements. They are the most restrictive in the nation — two four-year terms for senators; and three two-year terms for representatives. This year, 26 of 38 senators will term-out, and 24 of 110 House members will be shown the door. Nationally, Michigan accounts for 15 percent of all mandated legislative turn over.
During a wave of ballot proposals across the nation 26 years ago, term limits became a populist trend. Among the many purported benefits was the notion that limits would divorce career politicians from lobbyists. Michigan is living proof that the result is the polar opposite. Lobbyists and model-legislation crafters, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (aka, ALEC), regularly take advantage of the naiveté of tenderfoot lawmakers. It’s amateur hour under the capitol dome.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a body this writer rarely agrees with on public policy, has been pushing for reform via a constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, a majority of the electorate continue to endorse the idea of rapid turnover in Lansing. Fifty-nine percent of voters in 1992 favored term limits. In spite of clear evidence they are a colossal failure, the myth persists, and is taking on steam at the national level. A 2008 Michigan State University poll found that 70 percent of respondents continue to support the deeply flawed policy.
For those seven out of 10 Michiganders not buying my argument, let’s take a look at the data. Researchers at Wayne State University took a deep dive into the fallout of term limits, and there’s nothing good to report.
For starters, people expect term limits to do several things: Get rid of career politicians and sever the bondage that lobbyists (and now political action committees) wield over lawmakers; make elections more competitive; increase diversity in Lansing; strengthen ties with constituents; reduce legislative gridlock; and foster a merit-based system for selecting chamber leadership.
In reality, term limits do none of these things. In most cases, the research determined that term limits actually exacerbated these problems.
The research found that, since term limits took effect, the legislature has become more political, not less. That the constant state of electioneering has weakened the legislature, thereby ceding more power to the executive branch. And that Michigan lawmakers have actually voted less in line with their constituents, more often following the lead of corporate special interests — their new constituency. Finally seats have become less competitive with increased incumbency; fewer woman and minorities are being elected.
Inexperienced lawmakers are unable to understand basic processes and protocols. They rely heavily on staffers and their legislative analysis teams. More concerning, they let lobbyists take the wheel with model legislation. They adopt generic laws that literally say “insert name of state HERE.” The favor is returned in the form of meals, travel, gifts, and PAC money — the latter item, ensuring their reelection.
While term limits increase the number of open seats available, quality candidates are difficult to come by. Few want to invest the time and energy — and let’s face it, expense — to run for such a short-term gig. The paucity of blue-ribbon contenders leaves an opening for special interest groups to handpick and finance a patsy candidate. These corporate-recruited lawmakers know who their handlers are, and they have little incentive to consider the concerns and questions of their constituents. The research indicates that lawmakers, by and large, are more politically extreme than the people they supposedly represent.
Actual lawmaking has decreased under term limits, but bills being considered have been on the rise due to pressure from special interest groups at the ready with pre-crafted legislation. Gridlock has increased as the bulk of those bogus proposed laws stall in committee — which in truth is probably a good thing.
There is little time or incentive for elected officials to build bipartisan coalitions around important public policy issues. By way of example, we’ve seen an utter inability for lawmakers to rally in unison on the topic of Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure. It’s a topic they presumably all agree on, but in terms of action, it’s crickets,
Legislators select party leadership based on reelection prospects, not on skill and institutional knowledge. They are more focused on their career paths, moving from six years in the House to eight in the Senate, than doing the necessary work of the people.
Under term limits, we all lose.