One of government’s most enduring clichés is that “politics make strange bedfellows.” Clichés usually have at least a germ of truth within, as we see in Michigan this fall.
A seemingly disparate coalition of interests – including Voters Not Politicians and the state Chamber of Commerce, fierce foes in 2018 over the redistricting ballot question that voters approved – is forming to advance a menu of state government reforms. The primary focus is changing (not eliminating) Michigan’s short and strict legislative term limitations enacted in 1992. The idea also has the attention of the Senate Majority Leader.
This would require a constitutional amendment to be approved by voters. The budding coalition is looking to pair term limitations with a litany of good government reforms, the thinking being that voters will not go for term limit changes alone, but might approve them as part of a larger reform package. Other changes under consideration – open records, personal financial disclosure, ethics oversight, and limits on the amount of lawmaking that occurs during the lame duck session – would not require constitutional changes; these could be approved legislatively.
While it is way too early to assess any specific proposal(s) (nothing has been introduced), our research provides some insight into Michigan’s experience with term limitations.
The Research Council examined the effects that term limits have had on the Michigan legislature in a 2018 report authored by a team of Wayne State University professors who have studied the topic extensively. Our report looked at some of the more publicized promises offered by term limit supporters at the time they were on the ballot, and whether they have been fulfilled in the time since. Among other things, proponents promised that limits on service would rid government of career politicians, sever cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists, and make elections more competitive.
After two decades plus, the evidence suggests that term limits have not fulfilled many of the promises made by proponents of the 1992 constitutional amendment.
Have term limits made elections more competitive?
With some of the nation’s most stringent limits (three two-year terms in the House of Representatives and two four-year terms in the Senate), Michigan has considerable legislative turnover and lots of open seat elections – ones in which an incumbent is not running. Because incumbents tend to win elections, proponents reasoned that more open seats would produce more competitive elections.
But evidence suggests that after term limits, incumbents are actually safer and open seats less competitive (at least for the general election). This may be partially explained by Michigan’s extremely gerrymandered legislative districts. Further, more voters in highly competitive districts confront one hand-picked candidate in the primary. This is considered a “Goldilocks” effect as voters face too many candidates in safe districts and too few candidates in competitive districts. Also, the people picking candidates and recruiting primary contestants are interest groups and political elites who can promise the financial help needed to run a successful campaign for office.
Are term-limited legislators more responsive to their constituents’ needs and views rather than the influence of bureaucrats and interest groups?
Before term limits, local officials were a more important source of information and guidance to legislators on issues and how bills would affect local communities. After term limits, the interest groups recruiting candidates play primary roles in providing information and guidance to legislators.
Today’s legislators are much more politically ambitious than their pre-term-limits counterparts. Term-limited legislators spend more time on electioneering activities than did their predecessors. These individuals said that the reason they ran for state legislature was as a stepping stone to another political office. Michigan’s post-term-limit legislators (especially in the House) concentrate their energy on running for their next office.
The focus has shifted from retaining legislative seats to moving up (from the House to the Senate or Congress) or down (to county commissions, city councils, or other local governments). The focus is on short-term gains and fixes – or the oft-lamented “kicking the can down the road” – because politically costly solutions might undermine legislators’ plans for their next political office.
Have term limits helped or hurt Michigan?
Separating the effects of term limits from other factors influencing public policy decision making and governing is very difficult. Michigan has gone through tremendous economic, demographic, and social changes since the implementation — two national recessions, considerable disruption to the state’s economic base, population loss, hollowing out of major urban centers. At the same time, Michigan’s major political parties have become more polarized and separated from non-base voters.
All of these factors, combined with Michigan’s very short limits, make it increasingly difficult for lawmakers to tackle some of the state’s more pressing problems. While lawmakers have been able to make some progress on long-standing policy issues recently (e.g., no-fault automobile insurance reform), long-term solutions to others have proved elusive. Many observers have suggested that term limits is at least partially to blame for state leaders’ inability to come to a consensus around a long-term road funding solution.
It appears that Michigan’s exceptionally short tenure in office increases political ambition, which fuels partisanship, and enables legislators to postpone politically unpopular votes for the few years that they are in office rather than take on some of the state’s more pressing problems.
Regardless of who is involved in an effort to change Michigan law, they are going to have a tough sell to voters; the status quo remains very popular. The 1992 term limits ballot question was approved by nearly 60 percent of voters and a 2008 survey found that 70 percent of respondents approved Michigan’s current limits. No doubt today’s electorate would be skeptical and view an effort to increase the time lawmakers can spend in Lansing as self-serving. This is primarily why reformers are not suggesting complete elimination and also why they are pairing term limits with other government reforms – open records, financial disclosure, etc.
Term limits are often blamed for Michigan’s inability to craft public policies to deal with the state’s most critical problems (e.g., road funding). While the state’s shortest-in-the-nation limits might play a role, they cannot be held solely responsible; there are just too many other factors that have influenced policy-making over the last 25 years. Still, as our research suggests, term limits have affected electoral and legislative processes, largely in ways not predicted by proponents..
Now a coalition led by the state Chamber of Commerce and the grassroots group Voters Not Politicians is taking shape to push to modify term limitations. Knowing that they remain popular with voters, reformers are considering tying changes to other government reforms. There is no guarantee that changing legislative terms, or adopting other good government reforms for that matter, will “improve” state government and the art of legislating. Ultimately, voters, not legislators, will be the ones to decide whether the status quo is acceptable or to change a feature of state government that affects elections, legislative responsiveness, and policy making in Michigan.