The following article is adapted from a presentation given by Joseph Lehman, executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce's Policy Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, June 2, 2001. Mr. Lehman was part of a panel on term limits that included current and former Michigan legislators and was moderated by former Speaker of the House Paul Hillegonds.

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Thank you, former Speaker Hillegonds, and good morning.  To ensure a smooth program, my term as a presenter this morning has been strictly limited to one ten-minute term.  I'll have to quit after that no matter how good a job you think I'm doing!

There are strong arguments that tend to favor term limits, and also logical arguments opposing them.  As a research institute, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has neither campaigned nor lobbied for term limits.  As an economic issue, which is what we study, term limits is a peripheral question.  We have co-published one book and produced several articles on the subject over 13 years, and we have concluded that legislative term limits—which have only barely begun to be implemented—are no panacea, but seem likely to provide some benefits for Michigan citizens.

We expect those benefits to be as follows:

  • A more equal, and therefore more democratic, distribution of legislative power;

  • More choices, not fewer, for voters on election day;

  • A legislature made up of people from more diverse backgrounds; and

  • A legislature less likely to impose excessive taxes and regulations.

Let's address these four benefits one at a time.

First, term limits will tend to equalize the distribution of legislative power.  By that, I mean that no citizen in any district will be represented by a legislator who is weak simply because he or she has decades less seniority than entrenched legislators from other districts. 

In the House and Senate under term limits, the biggest gaps in seniority will be four years.  (In odd cases, special elections may occasionally extend these differentials by two and four years, respectively.)

Seniority is important because power and influence accrue to more senior members in the form of committee chairmanships, relationships with other powerful officials, sizes of staff, and other perks.

It is objectively true that term limits will limit differences in seniority, and therefore legislative power, from district to district.  But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, it's hardly democratic for long-term legislators to have more power than newer members. 

In a non-term-limited world, the members who have overwhelming seniority have the most influence on the legislative agenda. They are also in the best position to command political loyalty, dispense favor, or withhold favor from the new members who vote the wishes of their constituents instead of the wishes of powerful political factions in the Legislature.

In this non-term-limited world, newer members are under more pressure from senior members to "go along to get along," even if it means voting against the wishes of the new members' constituents.  Term limits don't eliminate this pressure, but they limit it by reducing the maximum seniority gaps from decades to just a handful of years.

Without term limits, voters have to penalize themselves in order to vote out of office a very powerful senior legislator who agrees with constituents' wishes only, say, 65 percent of the time.  Why? 

Because if they vote him out, even in favor of someone who they think will vote their wishes 100 percent of the time, the newcomer won't have the clout to advance his agenda.  The old-timer's clout on only 65 percent of the issues may be worth more than the newcomer's clout on 100 percent of the issues.  Because term limits minimize the disproportionate accumulation of clout, they reduce or eliminate the penalty for voting out an incumbent legislator in favor of a more promising challenger.

Some critics fear that term limits are undemocratic because they might skew legislative power in favor of lobbyists and unelected bureaucrats.  But if this is so, why do groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the National Education Association campaign and lobby against term limits measures?  And why do 85 percent of congressional staffers and 78 percent of state legislative staffers oppose term limits, according to a Gallup poll? 

If they thought term limits would significantly skew power in their direction, wouldn't they be in support of that?

Term limits are a democratic measure that tends to impartially equalize relative seniority in the legislature.  Voting out your guy is not a solution when what you want to do is vote out the other districts' guys!  For that, you need term limits.

A second benefit of term limits is that they give voters more choices on election day.  But one criticism we often hear of term limits is that they limit voters' choices!  Which is it?

Term limits do restrict voters' choices in one way.  They prevent voters from sending a single person to the same office more than two or three times.  But the term limit restriction on voter choice is only one restriction among several long-standing ones, including age, whether a potential candidate already holds another office, and residency.  So minor restrictions to voters' choices are nothing new, or even a very controversial idea.

So how do term limits increase voters' choices?  By reducing the barriers to entering a race.

The presence of an incumbent is a huge barrier to even entering, much less winning, an election.  And term limits ensure that incumbents will step aside on a regular basis. 

In 1990, California was the first state to pass term limits.  At the time, a challenger for a seat in the Assembly had to spend from $300,000 to $500,000 on political advertising just to be competitive with an incumbent.  By 1996, when California's term limits started to affect the Assembly, campaign spending there had declined 44 percent while the number of challengers increased 50 percent.

Here in Michigan we have evidence of the strong barrier—and limitations on voter choice—created by incumbency.  The absence of the incumbent barrier in just one Senate seat, Mike Rogers's, had three term-limited House members—who understand the power of incumbency—jumping into that race for Senate in a special election.  They didn't want to wait and have to run against a sitting Senator.

Now we know that such special elections make life more difficult for legislative leaders.  But most voters would probably accept the tradeoff of imposing a trickier political situation on the Speaker of the House in exchange for more choices on election day.

The third benefit of term limits is that they seem likely to create a more diverse legislature. 

One objection to term limits is that they result in a Legislature with less total experience in the details of how government works.  That's probably true.  But the tradeoff for a year spent in government is a year spent outside of government.  And it's not clear that a year spent outside of government is less valuable to a lawmaker than a year spent in the Legislature.

Should a member of the education committee have more experience in how the Legislature works, or in how schools work?  Should a member of the natural resources committee be an expert on voting rules and procedures, or would someone with years spent on a farm or as an environmentalist be a better fit?  I'm not trying to be facetious; I'm only suggesting that these are fair questions.

Again, if California is a guide, term limits will bring us a more diverse group with more experience outside the Legislature, but from arenas affected by the Legislature.

Since term limits began to take effect there, the number of women legislators increased by 25 percent; the number of Hispanic legislators, 250 percent; the number of former local officials quadrupled; the number of former business owners tripled.  The biggest decrease was in the proportion of Legislators who were formerly legislative staffers.

The fourth potential benefit of term limits, and the last one I'll discuss, is that term-limited legislators appear less likely to impose excessive taxes and onerous regulations on the citizens.

Before the Civil War, an American citizen could live his or her whole life with virtually no contact with the federal government, except for the Post Office and perhaps during wartime.  Today, one can scarcely go an hour without encountering federal activity or requirements several times.

At the turn of the 20th century, government at all levels took about 5 percent of what we earned.  Today, it takes over 40 percent of our income—and the take continues to grow.  And if 40 isn't enough, how much is enough?  Is 60 percent enough?  80 percent?  All of it?  Please let us know so we can break the news to our kids that we have to raid their college funds!

The state of Michigan takes a smaller bite than the federal government, but even the state grows.  Gov. Engler and the Legislature have exercised some restraint and cut many taxes, while raising others.  Term limits should make further restraint easier.

Economist James L. Payne finds that when members are first elected to Congress, they are less in favor of spending than their colleagues.  But by their eighth term, their propensity to spend jumps by two-thirds.  Many studies show that, regardless of party, Congress members' tendency to vote in favor of spending only grows the longer they hold office.

Sen. George McGovern was forced out by voters years ago, so he tried his hand running a motel.  When that business folded, he was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, "I wish I had a better sense of what it took to [meet a payroll] when I was in Washington." 

Politicians who know they must one day return to ordinary society have strong incentives to think carefully about the taxes and regulations they impose, since they will have to bear them while they make a living the way the rest of us do.

These are the four expected benefits of term limits—a more democratic distribution of legislative power, more voter choices, a more diverse legislature, and a body of lawmakers more inclined to restrain counterproductive growth in government.

But there's a huge caveat.  It's far too early to tell if Michigan's term limits experiment will prove these benefits, or prove the objections raised by their opponents.

Only the House has seen the full effect of term limits, and that only for one election, and that only in isolation from a Senate still full of long-term incumbents and an unusually strong three-term Governor who spent twenty years in the Legislature himself.

And the House has had recent successes.  New ideas have been debated and voted upon.  A new Detroit school reform board was established.  Income and Single Business Tax burdens were reduced.

Yes, representatives have made mistakes.  But the presence of mistakes does not distinguish this House from any other Legislature in our history.  And who is to say that the heightened scrutiny—to see if the bevy of freshmen legislators is up to snuff—is a bad thing for the voters?  Time will tell.

Proposal B in 1992 passed with a 59-percent majority.  If it had included a provision to reconsider the term limits experiment after an appropriate number of years to determine if term limits should be retained, it is highly doubtful that the best year to reconsider term limits would have been this year, 2001. 

Or even 2002.  Or 2004.  It seems likely that voters would have said, "Let's try term limits, and let's wait for them to be in full effect for a few legislative cycles before we pass judgment."

Two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin summed up the best case for term limits.  He said, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors..  For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them."

Two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin summed up the best case for term limits. He said, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors.. For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them."