Time to Repeal or Revise Term Limits?

The following article originally appeared in the April 5, 2002, issue of the MIRS newsletter in answer to the following: As Michigan voters prepare to go to the polls in 2002, the full impact of term limits will swing into effect. Regardless of your philosophical position on the issue, what has been the observable impact on residents, the efficacy of the Legislature and state policy of the 1992 constitutional amendment?"

With a move afoot to revise Michigan's term limit law, it's appropriate to begin this commentary with a realistic observation about the near-term prospects for revision. The bottom line: It ain't gonna happen. And that's likely true whether one is talking about eliminating the 1992 term limit amendment, or simply changing it to extend the permissible length of terms.

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That's a reasonable verdict in light of recent developments in California. That state's voters adopted term limits in 1990, a full two years before Michigan did. The legislative limitations were identical to those in our constitutional amendment of 1992: two four-year terms for state senators and three two-year terms for state representatives. On March 5, 2002, California voters were faced with a proposal that would have relaxed those rules. Proponents of the change outspent the other side by a whopping 10 to 1 and their advertising campaign sold the change as a modest reform. Teacher unions, trial lawyers and other powerful lobbies worked feverishly for passage.

But the California proposal was dumped in a landslide. Voters apparently felt that 12 years was too soon to rush to judgment on the issue, or that term limits were working well, or that modifying them wouldn't somehow mean better government. I can think of no reason why the verdict would be any different in Michigan this year, next year, or in the foreseeable future.

Term limit opponents in Michigan were heartened earlier this year when Idaho became the first state to repeal its limitations. But that was a different animal. Term limits there were originally a creation of the legislature and their repeal was an act of the same body. The issue never went to the voters of the state, who in this fall's elections will have a chance to register their feelings about how their representatives dealt with it. Michigan's term limit law cannot be changed without a statewide vote.

Personally, I have never thought of the notion of term limits as some sort of panacea or cure-all. I don't believe its staunchest advocates have ever claimed it to be one either. Ultimately, with or without limits on terms, people in a free and democratic republic will get the government they want or deserve-whether that's good or bad government, big or small government. Real, systemic change in government comes about through changes in the ideas, expectations and integrity of the citizenry.

A member of my staff who opposes term limits argues cogently that while term limits are supposed to lessen the power of incumbency, increased rotation in the Legislature may prove to be meaningless if the size and scope of government remains unchanged, or if the citizenry is not vigilant in holding representatives accountable. But if term limits can change the dynamics within government (for example, by making legislators more mindful of how their actions will impact the private sector that pays the bills and which may soon be their place of employment once again), then they can achieve some positive good. Perhaps in another decade, we'll have enough experience with term limits to know for sure.

This much is true at all times, with or without term limits: Many (perhaps most) of those who serve in public office are genuine and sincere. During whatever time they have in office, they vote their consciences and are not bought and paid for by anyone who gives to their campaigns.

For sure, term limits do not guarantee better government. They don't eliminate influence-peddling. They don't make saints of legislators. But all that (and perhaps much more that isn't particularly complimentary) can be said of the absence of term limits. This illuminates the conundrum that the anti-term limits people have not yet solved: They have not made much of a case that term limits have been a setback for Michiganians.

Talk to long-time and full-time Lansing pols and lobbyists and indeed, one gets the impression that the sky has fallen. Legislators don't have as many committee hearings as they used to. They aren't as knowledgeable about the system as they used to be. It takes more time to get to know the Legislature because its members aren't around as long. Inexperienced lawmakers percolate to top leadership positions after a scant term or two. But these are reasons why pols and lobbyists have to work harder these days. They are not evidence of deteriorating government. They are not reasons to dump or even revise what voters once overwhelmingly approved and which is still in its infancy as a regime.

Time and again when asked "Where's the beef?" the advocates of revising term limits produce a lot of whining and breast-beating but pitifully little substance. They often seem oblivious to the fact that the burden of proof that term limits have been harmful rests squarely on their shoulders. When asked to cite specific laws or behavior in Lansing that are both harmful and uniquely attributable to term limits, they pontificate in generalities.

Ten years isn't a long time, but it's apparently long enough for some people to have forgotten what non-term limited politicians once gave our state-one of the highest tax burdens in the Union and a political environment in Lansing that was arguably more dominated by entrenched and vested interests than what exists today. After term limits passed in 1992 and legislators knew the clock was ticking on their tenure, we saw more tax cuts and spending restraint than before. We have seen sensible reform of the process that authorizes pay hikes for legislators, supplanting the old politically circuitous and disingenuous method by which legislators could take a pay hike and claim that the devil made somebody else do it.

Annual department budgets are among the most complex of legislation passed every year-and a realm where opponents of the 1992 measure predicted term limits would produce palpable disaster. But in 1999, with more than half the members composed of freshmen legislators, the House completed action on budgets more expeditiously than a pre-term limits Senate. And that's a pattern that has held since as well. The House versions were also more frugal than those of the Senate, where some long-serving members sought to protect friends they had made in the bureaucracy after so many years in Lansing.

In the absence of compelling evidence that Michigan is worse off than before 1992, those who are agitating for revision of term limits are probably wasting their time and their clients' money. Voters may not be much more ready to accept their thesis than they are ready to believe that American government is hampered because we can't vote for someone for president if he's only 33 years old or is a naturalized citizen.

In 1992, opponents charged that limits are inherently anti-democratic, that people should be free to elect whomever they want and that voters already had the power to limit terms by simply voting incumbents out of office. When the smoke cleared on Election Day ten years ago, however, it was clear that most Michiganians felt that the system was a stacked deck that needed a corrective. They seemed to be saying that there's nothing democratic about a system that allows incumbents to amass so much power and attention in their office that challengers can rarely win. Besides, argued term limit advocates, we already fix all sorts of restrictions on who can and cannot hold office, no matter how popular they may be-from age and residency requirements to two four-year terms for the president.

A 1998 report from the Cato Institute offered an intriguing response to the "We don't need term limits because we can simply vote the bums out" argument: "Districts with highly senior legislators often impose externalities (burdens such as higher taxes) on other districts by securing the enactment of provisions the other districts dislike either on ideological grounds or because they bear the financial cost. . . . Voting your bum out is not a solution when what you want to do is oust the other districts' bums. For that you need term limits, which oust the other districts' more senior bums and thus strongly increase equality in legislative representation."

I'd be the first to acknowledge that some very good legislators are gone or going because of term limits. But government is not rocket science and voters will send new, fresh faces to the Legislature who we'll come to miss some day too. Meantime, because of term limits we've lost some bad ones that a lot of us otherwise had no ability to get off our backs or out of our pockets.

Without long-term legislators, according to another anti-term limit argument, no one will be able to control the bureaucracy. Pro-term limit forces pointed out in 1992 that legislators ultimately control the purse and the power to control the bureaucrats any time they want to, and that we must not overlook the unholy alliances built up between bureaucracies and long-term legislators. It is a fact that long-term lawmakers from both parties vote for more bureaucracy than do lawmakers who have been in office for shorter times.

Some say that term limits have produced a Legislature of people who don't know as much as they should. If that's the case, then let's educate the citizenry about the need to raise the standards for what they want in a legislature, and give the term limits experience more time to register its full effects. Michigan would surely benefit from a broader base of knowledgeable statesmen (and stateswomen) ready to serve in state office-something that my organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, is actively working to promote. Revising or abolishing term limits does little or nothing to achieve that.

Large numbers of concerned citizens saw (and still see) term limits as a positive structural reform, a necessary step to change the incentives of legislators so they would think more about the good of their states and country and less about their next campaign. They wanted (and still want) to ensure a regular supply of fresh blood and new ideas in legislative bodies. They desired (and still desire) to open the system to more people from a variety of professions. They yearned (and still yearn) to make public officials less responsive to organized, well-heeled lobbies and more interested in serving the general welfare of society at large. Those were the motivating ideas in 1992 and polls suggest they may still be what motivates a decisive majority of Michigan citizens to support term limits today.

A Feb. 21, 2002, statewide survey of 400 likely voters by Basswood Research showed that 71.5 percent of respondents favor term limits while only 20 percent oppose them and 8.5 percent had no opinion. When asked "If you had the chance to vote on the same initiative today (as the one that passed in 1992), would you vote for it or against it?," 73.8 percent said they would vote in favor. Chances are that similar majorities would also approve restoration of a part-time legislature, something which 39 other states have and somehow manage to get by with just fine, thank you.

Those who think the world revolves around what happens in Lansing can afford the luxury of endless debates about what a few years of term limits reveals. But meanwhile, it would seem that the people who really matter are a long way from being convinced that a change is needed.

"Large numbers of concerned citizens saw (and still see) term limits as a positive structural reform, a necessary step to change the incentives of legislators so they would think more about the good of their states and country and less about their next campaign."