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

Several years ago, when I discovered I couldn't play much tennis anymore because my knees hurt too much, I was fitted with a couple "bionic man" knee braces. I clunked around the court for a while, but even I realized they were not the long-term answer.

So I started looking around for an orthopedic surgeon to install new knees.  I wanted somebody who had plenty of experience with this particular procedure ‒ imagine, I wondered, what would be the result if a first-year surgical resident were to do this operation? Eventually, I found a physician who performed around 100 such operations a year.

He put in two new metal knees at one go. After a fair amount of physical therapy, I now bounce around the tennis court like an elderly but energetic antelope.

Opinion: Michigan term limits sounded good, but they’ve failed 
Related: Despite low trust of gov't, Michigan legislators have done little to change​

All this came to my mind upon reading a recent report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a century-old outfit that does nonpartisan, unbiased policy research and has been a priceless jewel for our state during the century-plus it's been around. I don't know anybody with even a passing interest in the empirical basis for public policy who doesn't depend on the work done regularly by CRC.

The report had to do with legislative term limits in Michigan, which were first adopted by statewide ballot initiative in 1992. The report, "Evaluating the Effects of Term Limits on the Michigan Legislature", tracks whether the term limits that have now been in place for 25 years have produced anything like the results proponents originally advocated.

The answer: No.

"Legislative term limits in Michigan have failed to achieve their proponents' stated goals: Ridding government of career politicians, increasing diversity among elected officials and making elections more competitive," says the report.

The authors, Wayne State University political scientists, Drs. Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and Lyke Thompson, have been studying the effects of Michigan's legislative term limits for a quarter of a century. The Michigan limits ‒ six years or three two-year terms for state representatives, and eight years or two four-year terms for state senators ‒ are among the most restrictive in America.

The report concludes that the "chief problem rests not with term limits, but with the fact that among the 15 states with term limits, Michigan has the shortest and strictest limits."

Back in 1992, proponents of term limits argued they would somehow result in "citizen politicians," ordinary people who would serve for a spell in political office in Lansing, then return home ‒ uninfected with the political disease ‒ to their ordinary lives.  

Not so.

Instead, the CRC research paper finds that "term limits have made state legislators, especially House members, view their time (in office) as a stepping stone to another office." A common result has been that newly elected House members immediately upon election start raising money to fund their next two terms. When they eventually approach their limited time in office, they start casting about for another, higher office to seek.  Of course, they renew their quest for campaign contributions.

And so the merry-go-round of political ambition and fund-raising gets another whirl.

The consequences of our term limits will become highly visible next year, as a result of the election this coming November. Michigan will enter 2019 with a new governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, Senate majority leader and speaker of the House because every person currently holding these positions will be term limited out of office at the end of this year.

What puzzling about term limits, even after 25 years of bad experience, is that they remain popular with voters. A 2008 Michigan State University survey concluded that 70 percent of respondents said they approved them.  Part of the reason is deep public skepticism of politicians of all stripes, particularly those whose careers result in their election and re-election.

A national outfit, U. S. Term Limits, based in Washington, D.C. is also a powerful (and wealthy) advocate for term limits. After I wrote a column on the topic years ago, the most vitriolic rebuttal came from U. S. Term Limits, which promised unspecified ills to me and my ilk. Most office-holders are unwilling to go after term limits for fear of being labeled "professional politicians."

Talk with anybody who has more than a passing interest in public policy in Lansing, and you'll hear a litany of criticism of our term-limited legislature.  They don't know what they're doing or how to go about it. They have no institutional memory. They dance to the tune of big contributors or lobbyists, who are richer and know more than inexperienced legislators.  And on and on.

When I needed new knees, I sought out a surgeon who was experienced in the procedure. What I decidedly did not want was an inexperienced doc who was going to learn how to do it while slicing my knees open and inserting metal. Term limits places a premium on inexperience and is one of the basic problems in the conduct of public policy in Michigan. It's time they were either abolished or extended.

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Tue, 05/22/2018 - 8:05am

So the problem with term limits is that politicians is that they want leverage their name recognition and jump into another office after they're term limited out? In essence staying in office for ever. And without term limits they want to leverage their name recognition and thereby stay in office forever or move to higher ones. Hmmm ... what's the difference? Why eliminate limits only for the legislature, what about the governor? Doesn't "experience" help in that office too?
Maybe the changes you decry in the way legislatures function have more to do with the increased partisanship and more defined differences between the parties than existed before? The experience in federal legislative branch doesn't support your case. There are just as many ignorant and buffoonish members there also. Sorry but silver bullets leading us to Nirvana just don't seem to exist, not with term limits and not without them. Governing and managing people isn't changing knees or transmissions, it's more like fishing.

Robert Dunn
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 9:08am

I would agree with you but we elect these individuals. Whoever we elect any more, regardless for the state or federal government, they are loyal to their party and not the state or country. Since I do not see the two party system changing we will continue to be dysfunctional whether there are limits or not. As for Power's knee replacement he had many options to chose from. In politics we only have two, R or D.

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 8:23am

I'm skeptical that whether a politician is loyal to their party or to their narrowly defined district is better or worse. There are definite examples of very bad politicians being re-elected over and over. Judging from your comment I would assume you'd favor removing the party labels from the ballot and elimination of public financed primaries? I see a good trade for term limits.

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 8:09am

Most voters are not sophisticated enough to understand the negative effects of term limits which makes any repeal next to impossible.

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 8:51am

Despite what you think, Michigan does not have term limits. Politicians just jump from one position to another, so in the end we have people who are perpetually in an office somewhere, local, state, or even the holy grail, a federal job. The problem is not term limits, but rather, the type of person who runs for office. Dave Trott, US representative 11th Michigan district is an example of the type of person we should get to run. He was very successful at his job before he ran, he didn't need to run for office, he brought to the office all his expertise which I classify as listening and doing, and after 2 terms, he said I've done my civic duty so I will not run again. Contrast that with the Crawfords' and the Kowells', people who have in conjunction with their wives, held just about every position in local, county, and state government and are still looking for more trough to slurp at. It would be great if we could remove all the benefits from elected positions, then we could see who wants to remain because they consider it a civic duty and who leaves because there is no trough to slurp from. We need the Dave Trott's of the world and we could do without the Crawfords' and the Kowells'.

George Moroz
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 9:44am

We don't need term limits as long as we have the ballot box.

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 11:54am


Tue, 05/22/2018 - 11:05am

You might think that experience and expertise count in politics but it doesn't. The State Senate's Judiciary Committee is chaired by a retired sheriff. The House Tax Policy Committee is chaired by a former teacher (while a CPA, third term Rep. Howrylak is frozen out.) Previously, Lisa Posthumus Lyons was Chair of the Education Committee - she had no expertise in the education arena.
I readily agree that the terms should be lengthened. Why there is no equity in term length between senators and representatives is not understandable, for one. But tossing out term limits is too much.

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 11:30am

I wholeheartedly agree, Phil. Institutional memory is a valuable asset for any business or organization, including government, and Michigan has suffered greatly from the loss of this asset.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 12:25pm

Mr. Power,

Remind me again on why having no term limits has worked wonders in Washington?

OABTW, thank you League of Women Voters for your part in perpetuating that mess.

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 4:32pm

It is frightening to think most of these guys/ gals could spend the rest of their lives "representing" us.

John Q. Public
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 10:30pm

Two tired, banal arguments just won't die, so they deserve the same tired rebuttals.

"We already have term limits. They're called elections."

That's great, except they don't work. I could bring up any number of crooked and/or incompetent officeholders from both major parties, but two stand out: Kwame Kilpatrick and Jase Bolger. You know their transgressions, yet neither one had trouble winning re-election EVEN WHEN THOSE FAILURES WERE KNOWN IN ADVANCE of the elections. Hell, Rick Snyder campaigned personally for Bolger in the shadow of his participation in attempted election fraud. Kilpatrick was bad enough, but at least I wasn't stuck with him (much). Bolger, on the other hand, was Speaker of the House. Not only did his district re-elect him, so too did the House re-appoint him speaker. I told Rep. Theresa Abed that her spineless realpolitik vote for him to remain speaker in 2012 cost her my vote in 2014 (a Pyrrhic victory for me, I must say.) When voters fail to do the right thing, term limits are what best save the rest of us from chronic subjection to their stupidity.

"When I need a surgeon/pilot/mechanic/plumber/lawyer/accountant--whatever personal service provider--do I look to hire the one with no experience?"

This argument is just ridiculous--a specious comparison between cheese and chalk. As others have already noted, experience and ability don't matter much in gaining elected office. If they did, Doug Drake (I know you likely don't know him unless you're a policy junkie, which is the point) would be finishing up his third term in the state house right now. Likability gets one elected, even if you're an incompetent buffoon or a thief with the gift of gab. Wearing chevrons on your sleeve or jewelry on your collar at work is helpful, too. Add to that, nobody else gets a say in whom you choose to provide services for you. You aren't stuck with someone else's bad choices for years at a time. You aren't even stuck with your OWN bad choices for years at a time--you can switch whenever you like. If I were able to easily rid myself of lousy representatives foisted upon me against my will and replace them with ones of my liking even in the face of disagreement with my fellow citizens, as I am with personal service contractors, then I might be in favor of ending term limits.

Term limits have dispensed with a lot more fetid bath water than cooing babies. The Citizens Research Council has a mantra: “The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.” Would that a similar axiom applied to voting.

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 8:19am

The only thing worse than an inexperienced politician is an experienced one. You seem to be suggesting that they get led around by lobbyists until they get some magic level of experience and then, what?

Then they can really go to work for the lobbyists. Especially this current crowd. Look at this, for example:

Only experienced public leaches would have the gall to push this through. And it has been like this since Snyder took over.

frank shepherd
Sun, 05/27/2018 - 7:42am

Term limits are popular with the voters because voters are mostly lazy... they use term limits to get rid of politicians instead of using the ballot box... and they avoid the tremendous effort it takes in ousting an incumbent... so, I have concluded the biggest reason for term limits being popular is just lazy voters...

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 8:42am

The article seems to skip over the very reason we have term limits....there was a stranglehold on the state house by the Michigan Dems that could not be broken through ordinary campaign and elections. The Michigan GOP championed term limits as a means of unseating the Pat Gagliardis and Lew Dodaks of the time.

In that sense, the unspoken "purpose" of term limits was completely satisfied. Unfortunately, the spoken "purpose" was never realized.

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 1:33pm

Eight states which had term limits have wisely repealed them. All of the frailties noted in the piece in Bridge are accurate. The most important one, and the one that should spell the end of this folly, is that Term Limits are patently unconstitutional and deserve repeal on that basis alone.

T. R. Shaw
Wed, 09/05/2018 - 9:55pm

Term Limits have created:
-Perpetual Rookies.
-An agenda-driven legislator.
-Empowered bureaucrats.
-Made campaigns too expensive for the true citizen-legislator, which was part of the original attraction and intent.
-Polarized both parties to their extreme wings each election.

"Other than that, they are a great thing!" (Paraphrasing Norman Schwarzkopf)

Phil Powers
Thu, 09/06/2018 - 7:34am

Listen to this man; his name is nearly perfect.

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 4:11pm

Absolutely right.

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 9:48pm

With term limits we lose institutional memory. Some terrible legislation is passed by those who are in their last term with the help of like-minded cronies.

Fri, 11/16/2018 - 4:34pm

Ironic considering then-MI Governor John Engler (R) got to serve 12 years in the MI Governor's Residence despite those term limits being approved in 1992.