Opinion | Michigan term limits sounded good, but they’ve failed

Eric Lupher is president of Citizens Research Council of Michigan

Michigan is about to get a full dose of term limits. Between legislators reaching the end of their terms and those leaving the House in hopes of filling vacated Senate seats, more than half of all legislators will be new to their chamber come January 2019.

And state government leadership will change because of term limits. Michigan will have a new governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, senate majority leader, and speaker of the house because everyone currently serving in those roles will have exhausted their eligibility to serve in those offices or chambers.

Twenty-five years ago, term limits proponents persuaded Michigan voters that limiting legislators’ tenure in office would revitalize American democracy.  Scored against the improvements promised by those proponents of term limits, there is little indication that term limits have delivered on those promises.

Phil Power: The case for ending Michigan’s system for term limits

Term limits have not made elections more competitive. Incumbents are safer and open seats are less competitive, with more voters in highly competitive districts confronting one hand-picked candidate in the primary. It is difficult to assess whether term limits have expanded opportunities for ethnic minorities because gerrymandering has reduced the number of districts with high concentrations of them. The number of women legislators increased immediately after the adoption of term limits, but has subsequently returned to pre-term limits levels.

Term limits have not severed cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists. Legislators indicate that they rely on organized groups and lobbyists, partisan staff, bureaucratic staff, and non-partisan legislative staff as key providers of information on the bills they are considering in committee deliberations. These sources are sometimes accused of being part of the swamp that term limits proponents railed against.

Before term limits, local officials were an important source of information and guidance to legislators. After term limits, the interest groups that recruit candidates have become key sources of information and guidance. Legislators from both political parties have become more extreme than their constituents. Political parties have become more polarized, moving away from each other and, more importantly, away from their voters.

Legislators are much more politically ambitious than were their pre-term-limits counterparts. Contrary to the selling point that term limits would rid government of career politicians, legislators have become increasingly driven by electioneering concerns. The focus has shifted from retaining legislative seats to moving up (from the House to the Senate or Congress) or down (to county commissions, city councils, or other local governments). The focus is on short-term gains and fixes because politically costly solutions might undermine legislators’ plans for their next political office.

Legislating before term limits allowed legislators to bank political capital that could be cashed in when difficult votes were needed. Michigan’s brand of term limits ended the ability of legislators to amass political capital. Legislators’ preference for electioneering saps their support for policies that lack immediate political appeal.

It is impossible to isolate the effects of term limits from a host of other factors that might explain legislators’ behavior. During this period, Michigan has gone from above average to below average in per-capita personal income. Governing is difficult under these conditions. Nonetheless, it is fairly clear that term limits have accentuated pre-existing propensities rather than change individual and organizational dynamics. Michigan’s exceptionally short tenure in office increases political ambition, which fuels partisanship, and enables legislators to kick the can down the road for the few years they are in office.

The chief problem rests not with having term limits, but also with the fact that among the 15 states with term limits, Michigan has the shortest and strictest limits. Voters seem very much supportive of term limits, so efforts to eliminate them would seem to have little chance of success.

California and Arkansas, which had similarly stringent limits, modified theirs to allow legislators to spend all of their time in one chamber. This approach would smooth out the waves to avoid turnover in the magnitude we’ll see in 2019, allow legislators to gain more expertise on the issues they address in their committees, and enable chamber leaders and committee chairs to become better at their tasks.

See more of this analysis in our new report, Evaluating the Effects of Term Limits on the Michigan Legislature, or in a book authored by Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and Lyke Thompson from Wayne State University, Implementing Term Limits: The Case of the Michigan Legislature.

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Tue, 05/08/2018 - 8:07am

Your arguments against term limits completely fail to show how legislatures lacking term limits don't have the exact same defects you point out in term limited legislatures. So the US legislative branch is a example of effectiveness? Why would you expect state legislatures to be immune from the same forces term limited or not? Sounds as maybe your fondness for unlimited term legislatures may have more to do with the past nature of government and how it was constituted pre-term limits than the term limits themselves ?

Mary Robinson
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 12:43pm

Untrue - the writer points out that post-term limits legislators rely far more on lobbyists and other special interests - as well as their professional staff - than they did pre-term limits. In other words, legislators are no longer in office long enough to really learn the complexities of issues. They often cannot write their own bills - and when they do, they are sloppy and full of unintended consequences. And I'll point out that the US legislative branch used to be far more effective and collegial. We need to look to two things at least: gerrymandering which results in those legislators having no consequences for taking intransigent positions and legislators becoming more ideologically-based than issue-based. I believe that this is also driven by special interests with very deep pockets - and calls for campaign finance reform.

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 4:59pm

Reality is that few if any before term limits wrote the Bills they proposed, that was why they had both personal'district staff and why the Legislature it self has always had staff.

As for the added reliance on 'lobbyists' since term limits, that is pure speculation [no measurable means have been offered to demonstrate that. The reality that 'lobbyist' have been long part of Lansing's practices, and even before term limits they were blamed/credited with writing legislation and influencing officials and their staff. This author does nothing but repeat what was being said in the past. A point about 'lobbyists' and long serving Legislators pre-term limits was they intermingle and had long [decades] relationships that lent to their personal relationship extending into the Legislators' offices.

When it involves people there is no system that will protect them from themselves and their constituents from those willing to abuse the voters trust.

I have no problem with special interests because they don't vote on the Capital floor, it is the Legislators that are selected based on emotions and not qualifications that are where the weakness in the system is.

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 9:04am

I never thought term limits sounded like a good idea. Short-sighted, and now "they" want it on a Federal level.

Don S
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 2:04pm

Dot, who's "they"?

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 9:24am

Another disadvantage to term limits is that their is no institutional memory in our legislature anymore. We continue to try ideas that failed in the past but do not have anyone who can remember when something was tried and how it worked out.

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 11:22am

Do you have some examples you could provide?

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 11:25am

Could you provide some examples?

Mary Fox
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 7:18pm

Schools of choice.
Tried and failed under Engler. Privatizing under Engler (roads) tried and failed. Removing money from pensions to balance budget (Engler). Disaster.

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 8:54pm

The point of true institutioinal memory is to capture things so they transend the individuals and are the orgainzations memory so all now and in the future have access.
When the memory resides with a person it is not accessible to all, it is retained with bias [each of us sees things through our own perspective, retell it from that perspective].
If you truly believe that there should be an institutional memory for legislatures then a process/protocol needs to be developed that mitigates the personal biases and includes the context of the time the lesson/event occurred.
As for the ideas failing, that isn't necessarily that the organization doesn't remember, in many cases individuals have an agenda or are so enamored by an idea/answer/methodology that they will forcing it on others no matter if it has failed repeated times.

Larry Good
Tue, 05/08/2018 - 9:46am

Agree with Eric's observations. The quality of the legislature was substantially higher in the pre-term limit era when there was a range of length of service and not all were newbies. Expecting organizations to function well with no members possessing long-term experience is crazy. Loosening or eliminating term limits would be an important step towards more thoughtful decision-making.

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 10:53am

Mr. Lupher fails to describe what special knowledge and skills the legislator gain by being in office, especially such knowledge and skills that aren't or can't be learned and developed by those everyday citizens.
If Mr. Lupher truly believe there is that special knowledge and skills from such long service, I am surprise that he isn't a proponent of requiring an internship as a Legislative staffer for every candidate prior to running for election, where better to gain such special knowledge and skills. Such an approach would be appropriate with or without term limits.

If longevity is the sole criteria for legislative success Mr. Lupher must be claiming that all Legislatures prior to term-limits were successful or at least significantly more successful that those since, I wonder why he believes that? I wonder it Mr. Lupher realizes that the reasons for voters made the change to term limits had to do with their frustration and disappointment with the Legislature. There were case where long serving Legislators develop personal power that lead to personal abuses of the system, there were those that develop personal relationships with 'lobbyists' that were not beneficial for the public and constituents. I wonder why those so oppose to term limits are so quick to want to return to the past without any interest in trying to learn from the past and address the reasons term limits were invoked by voters.

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 10:50pm

We get the government we deserve....and given the miscreants of both parties and sexes we are doomed!

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 5:15pm

There is no job where "lack of experience" is an asset for the person filling it. We don't want term limits of just a few years for doctors, carpenters, teachers, cooks, truck drivers, or police officers... why would anyone want less-qualified people in government (unless it's too take advantage of them)?

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 6:45pm

Your examples are good, we can identify means and methods and skills improved for each of those roles and how they are improved by experience/practice. I have had none of those professions and yet I like you we have heard of making of the special knowledge and skills they are taught before beginning their jobs. What I am trying to understand is what are the special knowledge and skill legislator should have and how being a legislator causes them to hone that special knowledge and skills to a level that a new legislator can't perform at a high level of effectiveness.
I would like ideas from anyone, just something that suggests a long serving legislator is doing things for their constituents and the state that a new legislator could not do.
I had hoped a former Legislator would offered an example or two, since they should know what it take to be effective in that role.

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 9:12pm

Sorry Eric, the people of Michigan like our term limits. Rotation in office serves us well. We're not interested in having the same governor, AG, SOS, or legislators hang around for decades. It's easy to see what you get without term limits, look at D.C., Illinois, or New York. Power in the hands of a few, leads to corruption and cronyism.
The paper Evaluating the Effects of Term Limits on the Michigan Legislature, by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (cited here) is full of unsubstantiated claims, inaccuracies, and outright lies. For example:
They write, "(Arkansas and California), term limits were modified through citizens initiative to allow legislators to spend all of their time in one chamber." False, they were both legislative initiatives.
None of the claims in this paper are measured against states that do not have term limits.
They say, "Our post term limits interview respondents told us that it is not easy to find people who are willing to run for office", yet more candidates file and run for the legislature than before term limits, by a large margin. Citizen and voter participation are higher with term limits.
The paper claims polarization is the result of term limits, yet the U.S. Congress with no term limits has become much more polarized over the same period. There is no control group you chose to measure against, are you asking everyone to simply take your word for it?
Much is made in the paper about the executive branch and state agencies gaining autonomy because of term limits. Yet we can look at D.C. over the same period of time and see example after example of congress relinquishing their authority to the president and federal agencies.
This could have been an interesting project if Citizens Research Council had expended the time to do the analysis in a credible way. Unfortunately it's difficult to take this seriously when claim after claim against term limits is unsubstantiated and Michigan is not compared to state legislatures without term limits to see if term limits are really the cause.

Term limits are not a silver bullet (nothing is) but they do break up the power hold of long term career politicians who seek to maintain the status quo, and that is why voters continue to support term limits.

John Q. Public
Tue, 05/08/2018 - 10:03pm

When I see the scores of people who are no longer in office because of term limits, I'm inclined to say the results of term limits are mixed, not that they are a failure.

Most of us can't buy primary opponents in gerrymandered districts the way the Devos clan can, and our fellow citizens absolutely refuse to use their franchise to cleanse both major parties of incompetent incumbents. Therefore, term limits have been the only way to rid the legislative bathtub of the scum ring that builds up.

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 11:52pm

I'm quoting Ken Braun below. Ken was formerly an opinion writer for Advance Media. The short version is that term limits have made elections much more competitive with the party in power changing periodically as opposed to being dominated by one party....the Democrats....for decades on end.

"The Michigan House is elected every two years and is thus the arm of government most impacted by term limits. As noted in this missive, Michigan has one of the nation's most strict state level term limits amendments, so it is arguably true that that no state legislative body anywhere in America has been more affected by term limits.

So this argument that elections have not become more competitive is interesting because it omits the following...

From 1968, the year I was born, until 1992, the year term limits were enacted, control of the Michigan House changed hands ... um... well ... it never did. Democrats took control as a result of the 1968 election and Republicans did not take control back until 14 election cycles later in 1994.

1992, interestingly, resulted in both term limits passing and shared power between the parties, providing a nifty borderland.

In 13 consecutive election cycles before term limits there was one party rule and zero changes of power.

In the 12 elections since term limits... there have been five partisan changes of power, with 9 won by the the GOP, and 3 for the Democrats.

So remember: ""Term limits have not made elections more competitive.""

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 9:44am

The proponents of term limits identified a problem with our electoral system (the power of incumbency), but the solution was wrong. There are certain electoral reforms (campaign finance, length of campaign, nomination system, etc.) that could correct the problem without putting us in the peculiar situation of forbidding an experienced legislator who people have expressed a desire for from running. The bizarre result is that we have to choose from an inexperienced unknown who will serve more or less blindly for several years and then spend the remainder of his time planning his next campaign. We end up being ruled by upstarts who are manipulated by lobbyists, bureaucrats and party functionaries.

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 6:56pm

You are asking the wrong question, it isn't about campaigns or campaign spending it is about what the voters want/need. The questions are; what is the necessary knowledge and skills and experience a candidate needs to be effective in office? how can voters get that information? and how do voters verify the information is accurate?

Voters want to make informed choice, they look to campaigns to get that information, but all the campaign provide personality attacks and catch phrases. As long as campaign are about personality and 30 second sound bites [something money can buy a lot of] we will see the spending go higher and the quality of information go down [they ads are now becoming photoshopped to create images that never happened].

If we have the right criteria for evaluating a candidate, accurate information that describe that criteria for each candidate, then there would be no need for spending because everyone who have what they need to know.

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 9:07pm

Term limits are good. Political names will not be able to suck a paycheck for life just because daddy and grandpa milked the political system.

Don S
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 9:41am

Instead of changing term limits, Michigan should change the start of the term to the day after election results are certified. Thereby eliminating the "lame duck session", which is an abomination to the public.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say, the worst legislation to come out of Lansing, when either party has been in power, has been " lame duck legislation".

A prime example being the scam "road tax". Which was imposed on us by Snyder, and his lame duck RINO's, after taxpaying voters rejected this abominable legislation by the largest margin in voting history.

And these asshole imposed these taxes because they knew there could be no repercussions at the voting booth.

So, I'm not against term limits. I'm wanting the term of office to begin immediately following the election. The next day if possible.

And another change I'd like to see is, only property owners/homeowners, with a property tax bill in hand, get to vote on millage proposals. Period! No renters, or other non-property owners, allowed to vote on millage proposals.

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 12:50am

Let’s change the conversation and ask a better question. If the belief is that term limits is causing the disappointing performance by our Legislature then the wrong question is being asked.
If we want to improve the results of the Legislature’s work then we should be asking what are capabilities, the knowledge and skills, and the work practices that legislators need to have or exhibit to be effective.
Before we can judge the impact of term limits we need to ensure the poll of candidates our legislators are draw from have the capacity to be effective in that role and meet the responsibilities of the role.
We should start by asking what the legal expectations of the Legislature are, what the legal expectations of an individual legislator are, what the common expectations of a legislator are. Once we understand the expectations then we need to determine what are the special knowledge and skills a legislator needs to have to meet those expectations, we need to know practical knowledge/experiences, the work practices, the capacities a legislator needs to retain and apply the necessary knowledge and skills.
When we have clearly described each of these we need a means to ask this the candidate about how they satisfy each of these critical criteria for the office they are seeking, we need the answers verified, then we can make an informed choice and we will see improved performance.
Most important we need a means to measure the performance of those in office to ensure they are effectively applying all that we have identified as needed to the standards that have been established.
If a Legislator is to be considered a professional on par with a doctor or lawyer or carpenter or electrician or a teacher or first responder then we need to establish the similar standards for Legislators.
Mr. Lupher and others who are focus on term limits fail understand that if we don’t have the qualify candidates no matter how long the serve they will not improve performance. Mr. Lupher, his organization and others need to be asking the right questions otherwise the answers they offer will not change the performance in Lansing.
Who will facilitate the effort in asking the right questions? Will it be Bridge?

Sun, 05/13/2018 - 7:31am

The Founding Fathers had an idea of a citizen legislature, one where a citizen would serve a short term and then go back to his normal job. Dave Trott of District 11, US House is one such as that. Successful businessman, serving a short while, then returning to his profession. People such as Dave have the traits to get inputs, ask questions, hear all sides, and then make a decision. I have enjoyed the way Dave communicates with his constituents and explains why he did or did not do certain things in his voting. There are more examples of this, such as Alan Mulalley, former CEO of Ford, who knew nothing of the auto industry yet had experience in leading really big projects at Boeing Aircraft. He was a highly effective leader during a tumultuous time. And just so anyone has the idea that public office is not like private business, the thought process of the leaders are the same, listen, think, and do. On the other side, there are many in public office such as the Crawfords and the Kowells who have little knowledge of the subject they are voting on even if they have been in a succession of offices forever. They also do not have the capability to listen and integrate opposing ideas in the regularity process. Unfortunately, these are the people who do know how to slap backs and shake hands, and remain in office forever because of name recognition and the power of the incumbency. Michigan needs strong leaders, not back slappers and hand shakers. If term limits can get even a few of these type of people out of office, then it is worthwhile to keep term limits.