One oft-repeated rap against term limits is that the legislature now consists of inexperienced "amateurs." If only. In fact, from top to bottom, those who preside over Michigan's government establishment are political careerists. This reality is illustrated by an analysis of candidates running for the 81 open seats in the state Legislature this year: 72 of the likely winners are already members-in-good-standing of the bipartisan political class.
Here are the details: Of the 78 Democrat and Republican candidates who have at least some chance of winning one of the 52 open state House seats this year, 60 are individuals who have been immersed in government to some degree. Among these 60 are 33 current or past officeholders (five mayors, six city council members, nine county commissioners, six township trustees or supervisors, and seven school board members); eight current or past congressional, legislative or Detroit city council staffers; three relatives of current or former legislators; and one termed-out state senator. Eight more are current or past local government appointees or managers, four are current or past public school employees, and three are former state employees.
Twenty-two of these government-oriented House candidates are virtually guaranteed general election winners in "one-party" districts. In 13 of 26 competitive House races both candidates have previous government involvement, and in approximately nine of the rest the government candidate is the front-runner. That adds up to 44 open House seats where it's likely the next representative will be a government insider even before going to Lansing.
On the other side of the Capitol, at least 28 of the 29 new state Senators also fit that description (27 of the likely winners are current or past state representatives.)
The defining characteristic of political careerists is an ambition to avoid the hard accountability of a "real job" in the private sector for the rest of their working lives. Instead, they seek to live comfortably, feel important and enjoy social benefits by progressing from one elected or appointed government position to another until retiring sometime in their 50s with a nice taxpayer-funded pension. (Note that 9-to-5 civil service jobs are not a preferred-part of this personal agenda.)
Most are not out to get rich, and simple cash-for-votes bribery is rare. Almost universal, however, is an unstated quid pro quo: "Go along on the budgets, don't embarrass colleagues with amendments or statements that expose the general system-serving, and you'll be eligible for future appointments, political jobs, etc." Winning elections — and collecting enough campaign cash for them — are certainly high priorities, but not the ultimate goal. For example, if a politically-damaging tax hike vote may lead to sinecures like a Liquor Control Commission appointment or community college officer, it's a good career move.
The politicians who make a boast of past elective or appointive positions argue that experience means they will be more effective lawmakers. However, whether this is desirable depends on the record of the public body they were on: Has the county commission, city council, school board or township contained spending, lowered taxes, reformed employee benefits, strengthened property rights, trimmed-back stifling regulations and phased-out non-core functions? In almost every case the answer will be "no." If candidates want to boast of past government "service," voters should include that record in their assessment, and not automatically give credit just for having received more than half the votes in a previous election. As for the handful of former officials who bucked the big-government trend, they'll gain from disproving a rebuttable presumption of guilt.
Does it matter that political careerists are the people running our state and local governments? Michael Quinn Sullivan, an experienced limited-government political activist, recently gave a speech in which he described the problem: "When they arrive in the Capitol new legislators are informed by caucus leaders that they can serve the system and get innumerable rewards and benefits, or serve the people and get none of these - and either way no one will tell the folks back home."
But this actually understates the problem, because most new legislators have already been serving the system: that's how they came to be legislators. Incidentally, term limits didn't create this situation, they just make it more visible. Also, the "rewards for system-serving" message is actually conveyed by the entire caucus through psychological and social pressure, not Sullivan's metaphorical conversations with a leader.
In truth, legislators have always tended to "serve the system," but in the past this meant holding down the tax and regulatory burdens on business, and, starting in the 1930s, tilting the workplace playing field toward industrial unions. With the explosive growth in recent decades of a massive, government-union dominated welfare/regulatory state, the "system-serving" has evolved into catering to a much narrower special interest group, public employees. Those employees and their unions have also made common cause with anti-growth environmentalists and other anti-business forces, because they all benefit by encouraging the urge of statist political class members to add ever-more regulations — and more regulatory staff.
They have other allies too, but government employee union members are the core of this system. Political careerists serve them indirectly by protecting the spending programs they run, and directly with actions like refusing to veto a 3 percent state employee raise that went into effect on Oct. 1, largely gutting pension reform proposals like the ones from Gov. Granholm earlier this year, and working to keep their retirement benefits flowing by loading more debt onto the backs of taxpayers. (Indeed, many have argued these considerations are exactly what drove the 2009 federal "stimulus" bill.)
Keeping this system fed means that taxpayers are now viewed by the political class as sheep to be shorn and, except for politically connected favorites, businesses as potential exploiters to be regulated into docile servility by swarms of unionized bureaucrats. Thus, political careerism is also implicated in the growing sense shared by many that government is now the master and the people its servants.
In addition, it's likely that the massive expansion of a statewide crony-capitalist corporate welfare regime is also related to political careerism. Hundreds of new state, county and local "economic development" authorities and commissions, each with the power to grant selective tax breaks and subsidies to particular businesses, means hundreds more favor-granting positions for political careerists who have dutifully served the system.
The effects of political careerism now dominate lawmaking. Here's one relatively minor example: During a lame-duck session in the final weeks of the Engler administration, legislation was passed that granted enhanced pension benefits to a select group of political appointees and staffers. A similar "sweetener" was adopted just days before term limits kicked-in in 1998.
And just a few weeks ago, new bills were introduced to do the same this year. This pattern is just one more consequence of placing governance in the hands of an interconnected network of political careerists: They protect their own interests by taking care of each other, and by serving the system over the people.
Jack McHugh is senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.