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