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Posted on Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Extending term limits is a good first step toward fixing the mess in Lansing

By Tony Dearing

However broken you think the legislative process is in Lansing, there’s no single solution for fixing it. But there is one solution that would help.

Extend term limits.

In the nearly two decades since Michigan voters decided that no lawmaker should serve more than six years in the state House or eight years in the Senate, it’s become increasingly clear that this effort to eliminate career politicians has replaced them with an ever-rotating crop of newcomers who barely have enough time to learn how the Legislature works before they, too, are turned out.


A reasonable lengthening of the limits would give lawmakers more time in office to gain experience and put that experience to work.

AP photo

We understand why term limits were imposed, and we are not in favor of abolishing them. But we do support a reasonable lengthening of the limits, so that lawmakers have enough time in office to gain experience and put that experience to work.

At the moment, most Michigan residents would disagree with us. Opinion polls show little support for changing the current term limits, which is unfortunate. We can’t understand how anyone watching what’s happening in Lansing wouldn’t conclude that term limits are part of the problem.

The legislative process is a complex one that works best when there’s leadership that knows how to move legislation and when lawmakers know the ropes and have had a chance to build the kinds of relationships and trust that enable them to work across party lines. The current term limits work against all of that, particularly in the House.

When you turn over the entire membership of the House every six years, you can’t maintain the kind of continuity or leadership that’s conducive to getting things done. Instead, you get inexperience and excessive partisanship. New lawmakers face a steep learning curve, get quickly thrust into leadership positions - and then they’re gone. When the most seasoned House members have only two or four years more experience than the plebes, there’s little mentoring or institutional knowledge, and blind loyalty to the party that got you elected becomes more important than bipartisanship.

In the era of term limits, we’ve become increasingly concerned that the revolving door has rendered the Legislature less effective, while giving more sway to the lobbyists and bureaucrats who are well-entrenched in Lansing.

We also think, over time, that term limits have thinned the talent pool of candidates running for state office. With such a high rate of turnover, people who are well-qualified for office come and go quickly, and in some cases are replaced by newcomers who are even less prepared for legislative duty.

The problem with term limits is that they throw out the good with the bad. If some people served far too long in the era before term limits, we now see capable, experienced lawmakers forced out of office too soon.

Consider Washtenaw County. As a result of term limits we are losing Liz Brater in the state Senate. Two of our current state representatives, Rebekah Warren and Pam Byrnes, ran against each other in the Democratic primary for Brater’s seat -- a race won by Warren. We’re confident she would do a good job in the Senate, but we regret that all three of these experienced lawmakers couldn’t continue to serve us in Lansing and we’re not sure what Washtenaw County gains by drumming two of them out of office.

Occasionally, we do hear a voice calling for a change in term limits in Michigan. The Ann Arbor-based Center for Michigan, a think tank founded by former University of Michigan Regent Phil Power, is conducting an online petition drive urging lawmakers to put term limit reform before voters in 2011. The petition says term limits have resulted in “a brain drain of experienced legislators, increased influence of lobbyists, and partisan gridlock on the state budget and other important policy matters.’’ It asks that term limits either be repealed, or extended beyond six years in the House and eight years in the Senate.

We don’t have any desire to return to the days of legislator-for-life, and would not want term limits rescinded. We do believe an extension of the terms - perhaps a maximum 10 years for state House and a max of 12 years in the state Senate - would give lawmakers a long enough tenure to learn on the job and then take advantage of that experience before they step down.

The governor’s office in Michigan also is term-limited at eight years, and we’d keep that as it is. If eight years is long enough for the president of the United State, it’s long enough for governor.

We understand that extending term limits is a tough sell. If voters think their current lawmakers aren’t being effective, why would they want to give these politicos more time in office? But the shortness of the current terms is contributing significantly to that ineffectiveness. It’s time for voters to see that, and to embrace some reasonable extension of term limits.


Bob W

Mon, Jun 18, 2012 : 1:02 p.m.

"..newcomers who barely have enough time to learn how the Legislature works before they, too, are turned out." I've heard this said before not only about Lansing, but Washington as well. Why is this so? Maybe a good place to start is streamline the processes and get rid of arcane rules and procedures.


Fri, Aug 20, 2010 : 8:32 a.m.

All you advocates for a permanent political overclass still need to effectively answer the question as to how would our circumstances be any different if we had lots more decades long incumbents in office? Ad hominem attacks and snark while somewhat amusing do not count as answers. A far smarter reform would be to follow the lead of Iowa which has a non-partisan independent commission that draws legislative district boundaries that must be compact and continuous which make it very difficult for the political pros to gerrymander.


Mon, Aug 16, 2010 : 8:50 a.m.

Term limits have been an unmitigated disaster. They create a situation where everyone is running for their next job in an endless round of musical chairs, instead of focusing on the work of the position they were elected to do. Additionally, since none of the legislators is in office for long, they don't have a chance to develop good working relationships with their peers. It is these solid working relationships that lead to effective governance, where legislators can feel comfortable voting a bit outside of party lines so that compromises can be reached and progress made. Term limits don't need to be extended, they need to be abolished. If someone is truly doing a poor job, we, the voters, can vote them out. The mess we have is serving only to drag us all down.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 4:22 p.m.

Odd how none of you supporters of political tenure for life bothered to answer alpha-alpha's challenge. Not that surprising though. Does anyone seriously think that the pols in Lansing wouldn't lock themselves into bullet proof districts given an ability to do so? And what happens when these gerrymandered and ensconced pols can't be be voted out? Take a look at NY, NJ, IL and some of the rest of the failed state basket cases out there. Did allowing political office for life help them?


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 2:12 p.m.

Michael Christie - I hope you run; you have my vote


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 1:20 p.m.

There's no way shorter terms would lead to effective leadership. Some institutional stability is necessary. And along that line - if the Executive is term limited then the Legislature shouldn't be and vice versa.

Michael Christie

Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 12:56 p.m.

Why not change the way politics is run in Lansing, rather than extending their term to sit back and watch the State crumble? If I only had 2 years of service I would want to be as honest and forthcoming as possible so I could go work somewhere else when my term was up. We need to bleed out the system first and get people with real charcter and not the like of Andy Dillon that grandfathers in a host of people for live long pension benefits.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 12:50 p.m.

Well said Mr. Dearing! I agree, eliminating term limits is not a good idea. However, there comes a point when we force out those who have just become comfortable with the process. Term-limits allow educators, doctors, and funeral directors to become lawmakers. Please explain to me how any of them have the slightest clue of how to put a state budget together?? Let the politicians deal with politics, and let the teachers - teach.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 12:48 p.m.

"Term limits are by definition undemocratic." "Term limits are built in to our democratic process. It's called voting. Term limits that are imposed basically assume voters are apathetic, idiots, or both." In 1992, by the most democratic process possible, a direct vote, 59% of those who participated approved a constitutional amendment that gave us our current term limits. So the current limits are anything but undemocratic. As for that electorate being "idiotic or apathetic", I hate to think of either the 59% approving or the 41% who disagreed as anything but conscientious citizens exercising their democratic rights. By all means, get out and vote. And if you like the incumbent, vote for her/him again. But with each reelection, incumbents gain more power and advantage over challengers, power that is often not derived directly from the electorate. Those running for office should be able to use all the resources legally available to them. But from 1967 to 1990, more then 90% of Michigan legislative elections were won by incumbents. Some voters had something to say about that, first by getting a ballot issue approved, then by overwhelmingly approving it. I wish the terms approved in that amendment were a little longer; I would vote for an extension. But I voted for the amendment because I thought it was needed. In fact, one national issue I could get behind right now would be a movement to term limit the U.S. Congress. I see no reason for any legislator to "serve" in Washington longer than 12 years, for the same reasons I have mentioned.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 12:38 p.m.

Extend term limits but shrink the size of the Legislature. Just like in Washington D.C. they're willing to cut spending everywhere except in their own offices. Taxes as wealth redistribution to help meet social needs I can deal with but Government *itself* should be nowhere near as expensive as it is to run.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 12:33 p.m.

As was already said, we had term limits. They are called elections. If you don't like the way your representative is behaving, you throw your support to someone who is running against him. But no-o-o-o-o, that was too hard! Easier to pass a law that allows you to ignore what's happening in Lansing, because this crop of legislators will be gone soon anyway. Why should voters actually pay attention to how their state is run? That requires too much effort. Term limits have only made things worse. Much worse. We throw the baby out with the bath water every few years and can't figure out why things are such a mess. We should abolish term limits. Then, we should make voting a requirement of citizenship.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 10:54 a.m.

At least ten years in the State House and twelve years in the Senate.  Do it.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 10:43 a.m.

Thank you, David B. Term limits are built in to our democratic process. It's called voting. Term limits that are imposed basically assume voters are apathetic, idiots, or both. I, as a voter, should be able to choose to keep a good legislator in office. I am also quite capable of voting against one that needs to go. Just vote, baby, vote.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 9:57 a.m.

Unconvincing Mr Dearing. Michigan had a "professional" legislature all through the 60's, 70's & 80's which is to say when many of our current problems were beginning to emerge and become more and more obvious. And the professional pols then extant were just as mulish, self-centered and indolent as the ones we have now. Only now we aren't stuck with the Perry Bullards, Gil Bursleys, or Lana Pollocks protected by their own gerrymandered cocoons until they deign to move on. The whole basis for American democratic governance is that we don't want or need a permanent political overclass. No one is indispensable. Wether good (rare), bad (not so rare) or mediocre (vast majority) the senators and reps contribute what they can or will and then make way for others.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 9:04 a.m.

"But the shortness of the current terms is contributing significantly to that ineffectiveness." Mr. Dearing - Could you please provide some examples of 'ineffectiveness', where outcomes may have been different with 'seasoned' representatives? Thank you.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 8:53 a.m.

Term limits are by definition, undemocratic. Why can't I and others elect someone who, for no other reason, has been in a job for what some think is too long? I wholly agree with David, if you don't like the job someone is doing, vote for someone else. Term limits are for the lazy.

David Briegel

Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 7:13 a.m.

We already have term limits. They are called elections. Name one problem that was solved by term limits? SonnyDog, how have things been improved by your term limits? The biggest problem is the pervasive influence of money and lobbyists. Conservatives believe that more money will buy better gov't. Where is the evidence for that?


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 6:41 a.m.

I agree with Mr. Dearing, and I think it's ironic that most people believe that experience is important to doing the best job possible, except in government. Current term limits don't allow our officials the time necessary to work together (across party lines) to create long term solutions to move our State forward. It seems to me that term limits have forced those in public service to be more concerned about getting re-elected and moving on to the next office, than finding solutions to a better society. I still believe that the election process provides for a natural term limit in itself.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 6:34 a.m.

I do not understand how having more experienced crooks in Lansing will result in better outcomes. It seems to me that the only thing that the experienced politicians are better at is taking care of themselves. To those of you who think that having more experience in Lansing will make things better for all of us, could you please point to some evidence that would back that. We used to go work for a company and retire in thirty years. Those days are gone. Out in the real world, people change jobs frequently. Why shouldn't the legislature be re-invigorated by new blood and new ideas, too?