Hostility for the holidays: The lame history of Michigan's lame duck

Michigan’s lame-duck legislative session generally goes much better for one political party than another

Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Michigan is among a handful of states with a dubious distinction that’s come into sharp focus this month: It puts no end date on its legislative calendar.

Experts say that’s a big reason we’re treated to this biennial post-election Game of Thrones otherwise known as lame duck.

“That makes it really easy,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and authority on the politics of state government.

Related: In lame duck, all eyes are on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

Michigan – along with Wisconsin – finds itself in the national spotlight in recent days for lame duck shenanigans, as the GOP-controlled legislature seeks to strip powers from the incoming Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Republican legislators also approved measures to curtail minimum wage hikes and paid sick leave and were weighing other bills including a long-shot try at altering a voter-approved measure to legalize marijuana.

In Wisconsin, Republican legislators already have pushed through measures to weaken the authority of the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

Both states are among just eight whose legislatures routinely meet throughout the year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states put limits on their session days and must call a special legislative session to conduct business after an election.

“Lame duck sessions do not happen in most legislatures because regular session length is limited,” Brenda Erickson of NCSL told Bridge in an email.

Attempts to end this practice in Michigan have gone nowhere.

A 2015 measure to end Michigan’s legislative session on the Friday before the November election in even-numbered years did not make it out of committee.

“Our constituents expect us to make the tough decisions in a transparent and thoughtful way,” GOP State Rep. Joel Johnson of Clare said at the time. “Late-night sessions and last-minute votes without a thorough committee process damages the credibility of the Legislature.”

Among the co-sponsors of that bill was former Democratic state Rep. Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids, now chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

He concedes such a bill has no more chance of passage now than it did then. But Dillon said that could change over time.

“A lot of these issues take a while to pierce the public consciousness,” Dillon said.

“But this systematic dismantling of the powers of the governor, the secretary of state and attorney general, it’s just a purely partisan power grab. If they felt so strongly about this, they should have done this long before the election, so voters could have a chance to weigh in on it.”

Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, said Michigan’s open calendar makes lame duck “really easy.”

Republicans: Timing happens to work

Michigan Republicans defend their post-election moves as prudent actions for the betterment of the state.

That includes approval by the state Senate of a measure to create a commission to enforce the campaign-finance law rather than Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who ran on a pledge to push for election transparency.

Democrats said the bill defies the will of the voters who elected Benson, who follows years of Republican officeholders.

Eric Doster, a former longtime lawyer for the state GOP, testified that the proposed commission would operate similarly to those in other states. “Now,” he said, “the time is right.”

Likewise, Republican Rep. Mary Whiteford of Allegan County said the measure gutting paid sick leave requirements will protect small business from having to lay off workers.

“The original proposal threatens people’s livelihoods and undermines the positive strides that we have made to improve Michigan’s economy,” she said. “We must fix it now, before Michigan families and job providers begin to experience its negative effects.”

The term lame duck has been around since the 1760s, when it was coined on the London stock exchange to describe a broker who could not pay his bills. It made its ways as a term in American politics in the 1860s, to describe a politician on his or her way out of office.

The issue bubbled to the surface on the federal level in the 1920s and 1930s, as concern grew over potential lame duck corruption. Members of Congress at that time met following elections from December 1 until March 4 the following year – leaving the door open, critics said, to corrupted votes by members voted out of office.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution – which took effect in 1935 - begins the new session of Congress on Jan. 3.

Arnold Weinfeld of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research: “It’s about respect for the institutions we have in place.”

Lawmakers who won’t leave  

There’s nothing in Michigan’s Constitution to prohibit lame duck, since it only states that the legislature “shall meet at the seat of government on the second Wednesday in January” of each year. It does not say when the session shall end.

It wasn’t until 63 years after Michigan’s founding that legislators held their first lame duck session, as they met for 11 days in December 1900. According to legislative records, they approved no public acts.

There were just nine lame duck sessions between then and 1970. But since then, legislators have met in lame duck session in every even numbered year.

“That’s when it really morphed in full-time sessions, where they convene in January and go until the end of December,” said Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

“Now we can’t get the buggers to go home.”

According to Erickson of the NCSL, most other states have statutory or constitutional limits on how and when legislators meet.

Long-time Lansing political observer Bill Ballenger, a Republican lawmaker in the 1960s and 1970s, said it’s been in more recent years that lawmakers have turned to lame duck sessions to try and cram through controversial legislation.

That includes December 2012, when Republicans approved a measure to make Michigan the 24th right to work state, as thousands of labor supporters descended on the locked doors of the Capitol in protest.

But Ballenger said he’s never seen anything quite as brazen as the would-be power grab by Republicans this session.

“They are moving aggressively in a number of areas to try and rein in the power of the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general that I’ve not seen before in such abundance.”

To be sure, states without year-round calendars can still find a way to lame duck mischief.

Republicans proved this in North Carolina in December 2016, when the GOP-dominated legislature called a special session ostensibly to help victims of Hurricane Matthew. It then passed a series of bills to curb the powers of newly elected Democratic Governor Roy Cooper weeks before he was to take office.

But historians also note that North Carolina Democratic majorities did the same when they could, on three occasions – in 1972, 1984 and 1988 – voting to restrict the power of incoming Republican governors or lieutenant governors to hire and make appointments.

Arnold Weinfeld, of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, said that shows either party (at least in North Carolina) is capable of that in the right circumstances.

“I don’t care who’s doing it, it’s a power grab, an effort to maintain power,” he said. “It’s about respect for the institutions we have in place.”

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Brian Kelly
Mon, 12/10/2018 - 9:38am

Marijuana consumers deserve and demand equal rights and protections under our laws that are currently afforded to the drinkers of far more dangerous and deadly, yet perfectly legal, widely accepted, endlessly advertised and even glorified as an All-American pastime, alcohol.

Plain and simple!

Legalize Nationwide!

It's time for us, the majority of The People to take back control of our national marijuana policy. By voting OUT of office any and all politicians who very publicly and vocally admit to having an anti-marijuana, prohibitionist agenda! Time to vote'em all OUT of office. Period. Plain and simple.

Politicians who continue to demonize Marijuana, Corrupt Law Enforcement Officials who prefer to ruin peoples lives over Marijuana possession rather than solve real crimes who fund their departments toys and salaries with monies acquired through Marijuana home raids, seizures and forfeitures, and so-called "Addiction Specialists" who make their income off of the judicial misfortunes of our citizens who choose marijuana, - Your actions go against The Will of The People and Your Days In Office Are Numbered! Find new careers before you don't have one.

The People have spoken! Get on-board with Marijuana Legalization Nationwide, or be left behind and find new careers. Your choice.

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 9:48am

What a pathetic attempt to subvert the will of the people. The GOP of recent years at both the federal and local levels is a disgrace. The sad thing is that this destructive approach to government is working because decent people in the republican party are keeping their mouths shut. How can they continue to support such behavior with their silence?

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 8:54pm

Do you support a full time Legislature, then shouldn't we get a year around job from full time employees?

When the people vote for this Legislature into office was there some secret message that they should not work until the new Legislature was sworn in? Since this is not the first time for a Legislature [Republican or Democrat] to work up to the date of there replacement taking over the job what is wrong with it or are you advocating for a part-time legislature with limited time for introducing and passing laws? As we have seen this past election we have an active ballot box, why don't you promote the change for next election?

The article and whining seems more about partisanship and who was elected the previous election and to serve into January 2019. Does anyone doubt that if it were the Democrats working up until the official end of the session that we wouldn't have this article to read [oh that can be because Bridge is always touting their non-partisanship], and because as we have seen the Party loyalty demands when member shut-up when it is Democrats. When the venerable long serving Congressman Dingle wants to abolish the US Senate with a Republican in the Presidency and US Senate with a Republican majority but dlb [and Mr. Roelofs] ignores [can't see it as 'destructive'] that and only see how bad it is for Republicans serving out their full-terms.

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 10:49am

When GOP politicians serving out their full terms involved them explicitly sabotaging the incoming government and making choices that the majority of the state is clearly at odds with, yeah, there's an issue with that

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 8:00pm


This suggests that you don't believe in the rule of law and want to steal a portion of what the voters from the last election believed they were voting for.

Do you think that the incoming Legislature and State official should stop all their legitimate work on day of the next election or do you think they should be expected to work the whole term? Or is it you just don't believe the voters you disagree with deserve the same rights as you and the voters who vote your way do?

My belief is in the rule of law, and what is written is what is to be fulfilled even if I don't agree or even like those who were duly elected. The rule of law has been a foundation block for all the abundance and freedoms we have and to try to steal even a portion of it is chipping away at democracy and our liberty.

Peter Eckstein
Mon, 12/10/2018 - 12:15pm

Voters Not Politicians, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, and others could get together on a simple constitutional amendment to end the legislative session the day before the election. If they did, they have proven their ability to get signatures and support for good government measures. Abolish Lame Duck.

Peter Eckstein
Mon, 12/10/2018 - 12:53pm

Voters Not Politicians, ACLU, and League of Women Voters have proven their ability to get the signatures and votes necessary for constitutional amendments. If they got together behind a simple amendment to terminate the legislative session the day before the November election, it would also be a winner. Abolish Lame Duck.

Patricia Cooney
Mon, 12/10/2018 - 1:11pm

Our governor, Michigan Senate, and Michigan representatives have patterned themselves after our corrupt President and his profiteering administration. Does nothing matter other than corporate profits at the expense of human safety and well being? As with our federal "leaders," the actions of this lame duck administration totally disregard the wishes --and votes--of Michigan residents. WE DON'T TRUST ENBRIDGE, WE DON'T TRUST OIL PIPELINES UNDER OUR PRECIOUS WATER SUPPLIES! NO, ON SB 1197.

Chris Heaton
Mon, 12/10/2018 - 2:23pm

The Republicans are always arguing for a part time legislature. Let's do that and agree that the last legislative session ends the day before the election. They can take November and December off without pay. It'll save $ and end these sorts of Shenanigans.

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 9:03pm

Our state government needs a total overhaul, or Michigan will continue its current decline. The voting ballot this year was so packed with ballot initiatives because politicians have not been listening to voters. Gerrymandering furthered the imbalance of the legislature.
It is time to stop this insanity and put in place the changes which will once again respect the voters of MI. There is so much opportunity in Michigan to be creative and exciting, instead MI is stuck by politicians serving their own needs. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 12:56am

We don't need a government overhaul, we need people to raise their expectation of those they elect and those who work in government.
We as voters need to expect transparency of results and hold those who pass the law for programs and those who implement the programs to be held to a standard of delivering results. We have to stop being blindly Party loyal and ask for regular reporting of the results provide government programs and government spending.

We, voters, have to let go of partisan labels and the associate stereotypes and decide what results we want. Do we want students learning or do we want more spending, more schools, more teachers or do we want students that want to learn and do learn, one doesn't mean the other? This question to every headline issue in our news media and politician campaigns.

If we want a better state of affairs in Michigan, we the voters must be fixed and we are the only ones who can fix ourselves.

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 8:24pm

You may not have noticed Duane, but the voters are more involved now as indicated by the Voters Not Politicians and what does the lame duck session do with that? They weaken it. You talk about letting go of partisan labels, but this corrupt Republican legislature does not allow that to happen. The gerrymandering started full tilt in 2011. The extent of the involvement of the Republicans came out loud and clear as this was investigated. They were directly responsible, right out of their national playbook.

The electorate has demanded greater transparency for the last 10 years, and guess what. Michigan is still at the bottom of the pile of states in relation to transparency. The simplistic view of Republicans is cut taxes, interfere in running of schools, and grabbing power at every opportunity. The voters are engaged and will stay engaged until things get fixed.

Sat, 12/15/2018 - 11:54pm

What is so magical about the last ten years? What about for the last 50 years, why wasn't transparency just as valid then as now? Why in your mind is it only Republicans and not the Democrats who had the same control and practiced 'gerrymandering'? For your edification 'gerrymandering' has been in practice in America since the early 1800s, it has been practiced in every state by the both Parties. More recently after the 1970 and 1980 census the Democrats had control in the Legislature, and they used it to 'gerrymander' districts.

Transparency is independent of 'gerrymandering', it should be a protocol for government programs and agencies that is included in the laws that authorize and fund the programs and agencies. If Democrats aren't trying to include it into legislation than they are no different than Republicans that don't try to include transparency in legislations.

If you truly were about Michigan and not the partisanship you would be asking about how to make transparency integral to programs and agencies, you would be focus on results and not who is in power, but all you do is look to denigrated Republicans, while ignoring what Democrats aren't doing.
You seem blinded by partisanship, you don't see that there are principles for transparency and it should apply to all, no just to the Republicans.
Until we/voters focus on results and accountability of programs and agencies and let go of partisanship Michigan will disappoint and such things as student learning will disappoint.

Sun, 12/16/2018 - 10:03pm

Being more vocal doesn't make voters more informed, being louder and more personal in attacks doesn't make voters more knowledgeable about issues and candidates.
A simple test to see if you are better informed today or just being louder and more aggressive, or whether you are still just looking at Party label. List 3 traits that you find important when assessing a candidate, list 3 elements you use for assessing programs/agencies, and describe what have you tried in developing criteria to use as a voter?