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Published: Friday, 3/12/2010

Use elections, not term limits, to get rid of bad politicians

DETROIT - Ninety years ago, the famously irreverent journalist H.L. Mencken said that there is a simple "solution to any human problem that is neat, plausible - and wrong."

Nearly two decades ago, Michigan voters thought they'd found the way to fix the "mess" in Lansing: term limits.

They'd make sure they got the bums out, regardless of whether the voters were willing to throw them out. So Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed a term-limits constitutional amendment in 1992 that dramatically changed state government.

It works this way. You can serve as many as three two-year terms in the state House of Representatives. You can serve two four-year terms in the state Senate, or two four-year terms in any statewide office, such as governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, or attorney general. And then you are banished - for life.

This was supposed to take much of the politics out of governing. Voters had an image of corrupt machine politicians staying in office forever, feathering their nests, preventing reform.

So they ended that.

Unfortunately, what they got instead was worse. In many aspects, much worse - as a new study conclusively shows.

Today, Michigan has a legislature full of politicians who haven't had time to learn their jobs. There are no old-timers to take them under their wings and mentor them. Today's lawmakers haven't had time to build up good working relationships with fellow legislators in their own party caucus, let alone on the other side.

They have to scramble to keep jobs that are temporary at best. For their last two years, their minds are frequently not on this job, but on finding their next job. Term-limited House members run for the Senate; senators run for the House; others seek positions with the special interests that seek to influence them.

Lawmakers sometimes quit in the middle of the term to take a secure job, often leaving their constituents unrepresented for months.

The effects of this are stunningly visible to anyone who has followed or covered the Legislature for very long. But now, there is solid, scientific new evidence of what a disaster term limits have been.

Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, a professor of political science at Wayne State University, has led a team of researchers who have been reviewing term limits since they took effect in 1998.

In an article in Legislative Studies Quarterly, they present clear and dramatic proof that lawmakers spend far less time monitoring state agencies than was the case before.

Shockingly, the researchers say, "Many legislators elected after term limits don't even realize this is part of their job." Many said this is "not our job. It's the governor's job."

Even if lawmakers do take their oversight responsibilities seriously, they are apt to be less effective. In the old days, lawmakers had years to build up relationships and trust with members of the permanent civil service.

Those who knew about corruption and wanted to stop it - so-called whistle-blowers - were far more likely to confide in a lawmaker they had known for a long time. "Term limits severed long-term relationships between veteran legislators and members of the bureaucracies that those legislators and their committees oversaw," the study says.

Would-be "whistle-blowers are unlikely to reveal what they know to legislators, even if lawmakers know whom to ask," their article concludes, adding that most lawmakers likely don't even know.

Significantly, one lawmaker elected after term limits began heard a bureaucrat say: "We were here when you got here, and we will be here when you are gone."

The researchers did find people eager to take new lawmakers under their wings and "help" them understand how they should vote - agents of special-interest groups.

This may now matter more than ever, since the federal government has been passing on programs to the states, "and the large sums of money that Congress passes through to state governments suggest that state-level accountability is increasingly important.'

But in Michigan, there is less and less of that. In a 2005 book, Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits, Ms. Sarbaugh-Thompson showed that Michigan's term-limits law had produced a system in which career politicians play musical chairs, serving in a succession of jobs they never completely understand.

Her research has led her to conclude that extending term limits might help ease the problem.

On the other hand, voters could decide to return to the system of term limits devised by the Founding Fathers, which was designed to allow voters to keep those in power who were good at government and get rid of the rest.

That system is called regular elections. As with Prohibition, the evidence seems conclusive that the great experiment hasn't worked. It might be time to give the traditional method another try,

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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