The political class doesn’t like term limits, but the public does

The people of Michigan love term limits. Unfortunately, their elected representatives want to reform the constitutional amendment and lengthen their time in one of the nation’s highest-paid legislatures.

When citizens and politicians are at odds, it’s important to remind ourselves who’s the boss in this relationship. Politicians have a duty to us – not the other way around.

This principle is enshrined in line one of the Michigan Constitution, which says “all political power is inherent in the people.”

So, when citizens enacted term limits in Grand Rapids, and a Google poll showed only 1 in 10 Michiganders want to lengthen term limits, our elected officials should have gotten the message. They didn’t. They continue to shirk their obligation to constituents by scheming to weaken term limits.

Since the term-limit constitutional amendment passed with 59 percent of the vote in 1992, Michigan voters have always been the biggest winners. Nothing demonstrates this as well as a new report on electoral competition by the Institute on Money in State Politics.

Their research found that out of more than 7,000 state legislative races held across the country in 2014, 36 percent offered voters only one candidate. In 11 states, more than half of all races were uncontested. The takeaway? Uncompetitive elections have become an epidemic in the United States.

But Michigan’s term-limited legislature had a very different story to tell. It was the top performer in America, with 100 percent of races featuring at least two candidates. Michigan also led the country in electoral competition from 2001-2012, averaging a 98 percent contested rate among thousands of races.

The study found that the presence of term limits in a state correlates positively to the number of contested races. More competitive races force candidates to be responsive to the needs of
voters.

Term limits don’t only generate positive change in how we send our representatives to Lansing; they also impact who we send there. When turnover is built into the Constitution, citizens from diverse backgrounds are given an opportunity in public service. When career politicians run the show, fresh faces and perspectives find themselves blocked by a seniority system that prizes keeping power above advancing the best policy.

Those looking to repeal Michigan’s term limits love to extol the value of experience and “institutional knowledge.” If only we get rid of these rookies, they claim, veteran legislators can settle in and get to work fixing that which ails the state.

Fortunately, we don’t need to imagine what their ideal legislature looks like – the one without term limits. It already exists in our nation’s capital. Congress, the most experienced legislature in the country, has given us nothing but crippling dysfunction, partisan gridlock and exploding debt and deficits. “Institutional knowledge” apparently refers to the knowledge of how elected officials manage to stay in power for so long without doing a good job.

While voters are term limits’ big winners, aspiring career politicians and lobbyists are the big losers. Elected office was never meant to be a career, but a medley of perks and privileges changed that perception over time. Michigan’s Legislature today is the fourth-highest paid in America. That doesn’t include the $10,800 annual expense account, or health-care premiums lower than private sector averages.

For lawmakers, term limits represent not just a policy change, but an end to the gravy train. That’s why they fight so doggedly to repeal the limits. It’s also why Michigan needs a “conflict of interest” rule in our Constitution, which requires any modification of term limits to come from citizen initiative, rather than the Legislature.

Expecting legislators to give an honest assessment of term limits – with so much personal gain hanging in the balance – is like letting an author review his own book.

Despite myths to the contrary, lobbyists also lose power whenever term limits are enacted or retained, because the relationships they’ve built with incumbents are abruptly severed. They then need to work harder to form bonds with new members, who are less amenable to influence-peddling.

Term limits may cause problems for lobbyists and ambitious politicians, but they’ve been good for Michigan voters. As opponents wage a campaign based on letting voters chose, they ought to honor the fact that voters chose term limits.

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Comments

Rich
Thu, 12/25/2014 - 11:51am
The one thing that has not been addressed in term limits is the "keeping it in the family" that goes with name recognition. We have the Crawfords and the Kowells in the legislature. We have numerous judges in different levels of the court system. And we have it even at the top of the federal level, although Michigan term limits can unfortunately not address the federal level. As a politician plays musical seats going from township to state to county, and the spouse jumps among the same seats, we end up with a system that is similar to the longstanding members of Congress and with the same effect. Very rarely will a spouse be a different voice. The founding fathers of this country had the vision of a citizen legislator to enable new ideas and the prevention of a professional politician. We need to expand term limits to say that a person can not serve more than 8 years in ANY positions. Thus if you had served 8 years on a city council, your political career would be over. One may say that there would be no experience, no institutional knowledge. One only has to look at our current governor to see that the opposite is true. One can be very successful in their first attempt in politics.
Richard Burney
Thu, 12/25/2014 - 11:51am
I disagree. The present highly restrictive term limits in the Michigan legislature are actually depriving the voters of mature leadership. Yes, it may weed out some turkeys, but it also has put inexperienced 'legislators" into leadership positions for which they are not qualified and created a situation in which it is almost impossible to craft good legislation.
John Q. Public
Fri, 12/26/2014 - 11:46am
The "leadership" problem--I reject the premise that I vote for anybody in order to be led--is at least in part a result of the constitution empowering the legislative bodies to set their own rules, including filling the slots of majority and minority leader. How about having the parties nominate four choices--one from each of the quadrants defined for choosing legislative apportionment commissioners--for each leadership position (first-termers would be inherently ineligible under this system) and they would be placed on the general-election ballot for the people to vote on? Perhaps then we would have a better chance (slim though it may be) of having someone other than a party ideologue set the floor agenda. I doubt that Jase Bolger could have served as speaker last term had he been subjected to a statewide vote of the people. That he was even re-elected to his seat is a testament to the benefits of term limits.
Matt
Fri, 12/26/2014 - 2:32pm
The entire question of term limits pro or con misses the entire problem, the voters. Why are there so many absolutely ridicules insipid stupid adds? Because they work! Why do spouses so often follow each other into office? Because people just reflexively vote for a name they recognize. Good luck changing this. To make matters worse we have way too many positions subject to election for anyone to have any idea who or why they are voting for any of the options. How can anyone expect the public to keep track of American Idol contestants and their state reps? Something will fall by the wayside. As one who expects very little good to come from any body of government, term limits at least keeps politicians from getting too comfortable..
John
Fri, 12/26/2014 - 10:53pm
I vote for officials to look at the situation and make decisions as to the best way to resolve a problem. That takes some time to develop expertise and an attitude that government can work for the people. Instead the voters have been sold a bill of goods that ignorance and incompetence are useful qualities for an elected official. Where is the private sector do we celebrate an ignorant businessman or technician? Where do we encourage people to leave a job before they have developed the deep skills to do the job well. Term limits were a con game to get one party out of power and another in. Pure and simple a con game by vested interests to enrich themselves at the public's cost.
Duane
Fri, 12/26/2014 - 11:42pm
I have a couple of of questions to help me decide on whether to support the expanding the terms limits. What are the knowledge and skills a person needs to be an acceptable Legislator? do they need a college degree, if so which degrees are best? do they need to have help public office before running for the legislature, if so which offices? do they need to have a knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of the legislative office they are seeking, if so where can we find the description of the roles and respsonsibilities? What knowledge and skills will/should they develop while in office? where or how will they develop that knowedge and skills, will it be taught or will it be self taught, how will we know if they have learned them (is there a test)? how do those knowledge and skills deferenciate them from first time office seekers? I hesitate to change what is in place simply for change so if someone will address my questions I can become an informed voter and make my choice.
Jimmy
Mon, 12/29/2014 - 2:48pm
So thankful for these women who worked tirelessly on this effort. No city, county, town, or country has collapsed as a result of term limits, so to expect that to suddenly happen to Grand Rapids is absurd. Look no further than D.C. if you want to witness unchecked power.
Joe
Mon, 12/29/2014 - 3:35pm
Nice work, Bonnie and Rina. I like your idea for a conflict of interest rule. There's no objectivity involved when legislators have an opportunity to extend their own careers by nixing term limits. Let's hope people aren't fooled by the flowery visions of what Lansing will be without term limits. We already tried that, and it failed. Washington tries it now and is in the process of failing.
George
Mon, 12/29/2014 - 7:25pm
Every one in office should have term limits. Whether in local , county , or federal . No one belongs in office for 40 or 50 years . New blood , new ideas and forward thinking is what gets things done ,this should not be a life time job and it was never meant to be . Just look at our Congress and you can see what I mean !!!
dan brown
Tue, 12/30/2014 - 4:02pm
How can you nit-wits worry about term limits when there is nothing representative about Michigan's supposedly representative bodies? Democratic party (which isn't very bright) candidates for the state House collectively got 50.9 percent of the vote in the general election and ended up with 42.7 percent of the seats. It's worse in the Senate. Dems got 48.9 percent of the vote and 31.6 percent of the seats. The stupid Democratic Party thinks it can regain control if it only puts forward quality candidates. They're too dumb to recognize how rigged the election system is.
Kim
Tue, 12/30/2014 - 5:15pm
No one in their right mind should support term limits. Having two candidates doesn't make a race competitive rather its the district from which they run in that makes it competitve. The same could be said for our Federal races. If I remember correctly under our term limits the State was shutdown back in 05 so there goes that lame comparison to DC and I'm not totally sure how you can say we are better off?? Removing or placing terms limits is easy..trying to make the redistricting process more fair is hard and neither political party wants to fix that...and for good reason. We do have term limits their called elections and they happen every two years. Term limits makes voters lazy and indifferent to the issues that really matter and forget about transparency when no one is around long enough to unsderstand the issues besides the bureaucrats , lobbyists and Party officials/Caucus staff and I'm pretty sure I didn't vote for them. Stop being lazy Bonnie & Rina
Henry S. Bareiss
Sat, 01/03/2015 - 12:03pm
Term limits have at their core a profound fear of democracy. We have the situation where our legislators are out, just as they start to have the necessary experience to understand the issues and perhaps their colleagues. To build relationships with their colleagues, same party or not, one needs to have a stake in being around to have to deal with them. If we like someone, we can't keep him/her. I feel if I don't like a politician, I can vote the bum out. If I like him/her, I want to be able to keep him/her. I have faith in the democratic process, flawed as it is. Term limits limit my choice. Fear democracy - term limits. Trust democracy - get rid of term limits. Some needs, like infrastructure, are long-term problems. One has to start paying now for a payback later. If you're never going to see the benefits, why should you suffer the pain now? The road disaster is only the latest that our legislature has been unable to solve. I call that incompetence. They ducked the issue by having the public vote on it. Everyone is in agreement that the roads desperately need repairs. It is also well known that the longer we wait, the more expensive ti gets. They couldn't do it. Term limits is one major factor in this debacle. Schools are also victims of such incompetence. I could go on. Underfunding never solves the problem. The alternative is not necessarily "throwing money at it" eitjer.
Henry S. Bareiss
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 2:24pm
Term limits represent a profound fear of the democratic process. If I like a politician, I should be able to vote for him/her as often as I am satisfied. If I am not satisfied, I can throw the bum out. That is what elections are all about. Not having a stake in a long term project it is hard for a politician to vote for something that requires pain now for benefits later (roads and other infrastructure). Washington is in a bind because of gerrymandering at the state level. Here everyone knows we need better roads. Surveys have shown that most would be willing to pay for them if we knew the money was really going to the roads. The state legislature couldn't even do this. Despite widespread desire for good roads. This is systematic incompetence, not a good vote for term limits. It isn't the first time that voters have not voted their own interests but it is the law of the land.