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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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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