by Craig Ruff, President

In November 1992, Michigan voters approved placing limits on the number of terms that an individual may serve in elective state office.  This paper reviews the context of the voters’ approval of term limits, describes changes already underway, and examines future consequences of this once-in-a-lifetime shakeup of our politics.

Term limitation takes effect in 1998, and during the next five years, state elective government will be strip-mined of familiar faces, institutional memory, and individual expertise on issues.

What Voters Intended

Term limitation began as a populist brushfire in Oklahoma in 1989, then spread quickly to the Pacific coast states of Washington and California. By this time the brush fire had become a movement, largely fueled by people fed up with political corruption and careerism, and in Michigan, in 1991, it jelled into a successful petition drive to place on the 1992 statewide ballot a constitutional amendment limiting the number of terms that elected state executives, legislators, and representatives in Congress may serve.

Polled by Public Sector Consultants after the November 1992 election, state voters reasoned that term limits will

  • bring new ideas and people to state government,
  • cause politicians to do what is right rather than what is popular,
  • control interest group influence, and
  • keep politicians more in touch with the citizenry.

They also recognized that it will

  • undermine their ultimate right to keep or oust an official,
  • disrupt an electoral system that was working well, and
  • cause their district to lose the clout of longevity.

While Democrat-leaning voters split evenly on the term limits amendment, 66 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of ticket-splitters supported it. The issue won support across all groups, including self-described liberals, conservatives, and moderates, all races, every region of the state, all ages, and both genders.

Readers will remember that, as a backdrop to the 1992 elections, political alienation was setting all-time highs. Nearly half of Michigan’s residents believed that politicians do not keep their promises, cannot be trusted to do the right thing, and do not tell the truth. One in three Americans would not have objected to auctioning off seats in Congress to the highest bidder; half thought that drawing names out of a hat would be as effective as are elections as a means of picking members of Congress. Fewer Americans (only 8 percent) trusted government than believed that Elvis was still alive (10 percent).

Facts bore out the perceptions that at least some people in public life viewed politics as a career and that incumbents were all but invincible (recently, 94-year-old Strom Thurmond marked his 41st year in the Senate, setting its all-time record of service).

In 1990, the average tenure in the Michigan Senate and House was roughly 11 and 10 years, respectively; 10 legislators had served more than 20 years.

From 1967 to 1990, in 1,210 primary elections for the House, only 28 incumbents lost renomination bids (2.3 percent). In the same number of general elections, just 32 incumbents lost (2.6 percent). During the same time there were 190 primary and 190 general elections for Senate seats, in which only 10 incumbents lost their bid for renomination (5.3 percent), and 6 others were defeated in November general elections (3.2 percent). The rate of reelection exceeded 90 percent.

Early Signs of “Limititis”

Symptoms of term limits kicked in quickly following the 1992 constitutional change. In 1993 two veteran members of the House Appropriations Committee, David Hollister and Charlie Harrison, surrendered their influential positions and safe seats to run successfully for mayor of Lansing and Pontiac, respectively. Floyd Clack, Sal Rocca, Greg Pitoniak, and Teola Hunter eventually would join them in moving into local elected offices; Sens. Doug Carl and Virgil Smith and Rep. Tracey Yokich tried, but lost their bids for local offices. In politics, unlike other professions, downward mobility—moving from state to municipal office—frequently is more profitable, rewarding, and comfortable.

Maneuvering accelerated following the 1996 elections. Without the option of seeking another term in the House, 66 of the 110 members began hatching their exit plans. Rep. Greg Pitoniak struck early, resigning to become mayor of Taylor. Eyeing bids to challenge state senators in 1998, whose term limits do not kick in until 2002, are at least 10 representatives. In the three previous election cycles of the Senate (1986, 1990, and 1994) only two sitting House members challenged incumbent senators; neither won.

Upwardly mobile representatives breed new tension in the legislative process. Senators typically have helped guide through the upper chamber legislation sponsored by their local House members of the same political party; they now are slow to offer much help. The senators are warily seeking to minimize the crowing of and credit given potential competitors.

Other state representatives are weighing future bids for local office, including city council seats, mayoralties, county commission seats, and county positions such as clerk, treasurer, and prosecuting attorney. A few are handicapping runs for such statewide office as attorney general. Still others are looking at job opportunities in Lansing—positions in the executive branch, in trade associations, and in lobbying firms. The larger number probably will gracefully go back to private life, retiring or returning to such former pursuits as teaching, farming, and law.

Still others are engaging in “heir apparency”—plotting the succession of others to their own soon-to-be vacated seats. In some cases, the heir presumptive is a relative, most notably a spouse. One husband-and-wife team already has tag-teamed: In 1994 Sal Rocca withdrew from his reelection race at the eleventh hour, to successfully ease the way for his wife, Sue, to win his Sterling Heights seat. Expect at least three marital seat swaps in 1998.

Reps. Alma Stallworth and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick helped their respective sons, Keith and Kwame, move into their seats in 1996. In other cases, instances of which will become more frequent, members are boosting into their places loyal staff persons like Eileen DeHart (who worked for Rep. Justine Barns) and Derrick Hale (who worked with Rep. Michael Bennane).

Consequences of Term Limits

Twenty states now limit legislative service, affecting more than one-third of the nation’s 7,424 state legislative seats. By 2008, both legislative chambers in these 20 states will have undergone a complete turnover.

The Michigan Legislature is harder hit by term limits than is the case in many of these 20 states. Ours is a highly professional, full-time, well-paid body, dominated by professionals in public life; this is in contrast to states in which the legislature is largely citizen dominated and meets 60 or 90 days a year. Turnover in Michigan is lower than average; policy expertise and legislative length of stay are much greater.

California adopted a term limits plan identical to ours two years before we did. And because the California legislature is similar to ours—full time, well paid, and highly professional—we can look to some of California’s experiences as indicators of what we may expect.

Sure Bets

Fifteen consequences—some good, some not so good—of term limits in Michigan’s legislature are rather predictable.

Leaders will lack seasoning. The 1998 election will bring a massive turnover in the Michigan House of Representatives. Something like 72–75 members, close to two-thirds of the body, will not return. The first glimpse of term limits’ most profound effect on the legislative process will be seen by voters in the 1999–2000 House session: The chamber will be led by a Speaker with no more than four years’ legislative experience, and the nuts and bolts of its business—committee work—will be guided by chairs of equally short tenure.

Turnover will have tsunami-like proportions. Every sixth year in the House and eighth in the Senate will wipe out vast majorities in each chamber, unless the intervening election cycles yield unexpectedly large numbers of retirements and defeats that even out the carnage. But voluntary retirements likely will decline dramatically from levels of the past: Why would a person seek an office limited to six years’ service if s/he is inclined to serve for only two or four? Defeat rates likewise will be lower than in the past: Wannabees just will wait a few years, until the incumbent is forced off the ballot, and avoid having to go head-to-head against the power of the incumbency. The exhibit presents a turnover scenario; shading indicates years in which turnover will be highest.

It is no stretch to prophesy that Michigan state government will turn upside down in those political witching years in which the six-year House mass exodus overlaps the eight-year Senate exodus, e.g., in 2010. Under the scenario presented in the exhibit, in 2010 we could experience a turnover of 77 percent in the House and 84 percent in the Senate!

Impatience will be the order of the day. Legislators will have a gun, in the form of a clock, to their heads. And with impatience comes more mistakes, more risk taking, and more zeal, rashness, and passion. A Mozartian fatalism may pervade the scene: How many people look at their output, ponder Mozart’s death at age 35, and think “When Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for xx years—I’d better get busy!”

Diminution of institutional memory will combine with impatience to create an error-prone process. Fewer long-in-the-tooth veterans will be around to guide newcomers away from mistakes. Having gone through umpteen budget battles, veterans have the institutional memory that cautions them to resist, for instance, cutting off funds for PBB surveillance or slashing state programs that have federal matching funds that will be lost. What memory remains will be in the hands of career civil servants, trade association members, and lobbyists.

Political professionalism will decline. The legislature will become more appealing to amateur politicians. Champions of term limits promote it as a means of restoring Jeffersonian dreams of farmers, business people, bankers, and tradesmen sacrificing a few years of their chosen profession to provide a public service through elected office. Certainly, the type of people who run will be different; this is borne out by a poll taken shortly after California adopted term limits that revealed that one-third of its legislature would not have run for the office in the first place had term limits then been in effect.

You may recall the conversation in “Casablanca,” in which Bogart’s character is questioned about why he had settled in North Africa 15 years earlier. Bogart: I came for the waters. Q: You came here for waters? What waters? We’re in a desert. Bogart: I was misinformed. Many incoming legislators will find that they have been “misinformed” about what it is like to have to legislate—the process, dynamics, content, and mysteries of setting policy and spending $40 billion annually for the betterment of nearly 10 million people; worse yet, they will have to move on before they ever really learn how, only to be replaced by others who are similarly misinformed.

Titans and the power/wisdom of seniority will be a thing of the past. The chairman of the House Appropriations traditionally has been a Titan—an individual with the personal sway, stature, accumulated power, and institutional memory that enables him to rein in insurgencies and maintain discipline. Five recent Titans come to mind: Copeland (16), Jacobetti (20), Dick Young (28), Gilmer (16), Hood (26); the figure following each name is the number of years he served in the House prior to assuming the appropriations chair.

Starting in 1999, future chairs of the House Appropriations Committee (next to the Speaker, the most powerful job in the lower chamber) will never have more than four (!) years of legislative service. They will be strangers to many of their colleagues. On their very first day as chairman, they will be lame ducks and too weak to mold and hold consensus.

There may be wild shifts in partisan control. With so many legislative seats contested without an incumbent, we are apt to see elections in which partisan tides sweep huge gains or losses into the two chambers. The reason the Republicans could not win control of the state House in the Reagan landslides of 1980 and 1988—or, likewise, the Democrats failed to win control of the State Senate in the Blanchard landslide of 1986— is because so many well-known and popular incumbents were insulated from becoming victims of a dreadful partisan year. The odds are slim and none that one party ever again will have long-term domination, as the Democrats did in controlling the state House from 1969 to 1992.

Shifts in party control alone will cause shifts in public policy, and they will be accentuated because representatives of passionate minorities and ideologies will be more likely than before to break through electoral barriers. One can imagine the growth in representation of people who represent niche issues like one side or the other of the abortion or firearms debates. Their allegiance will be to their cause, not to their political party. Partisan discipline will become tougher to enforce, whether in the electing a House Speaker or on a key vote in the Senate.

Michigan’s inherent fiscal conservatism will deepen. Seventy-two percent of state General Fund revenues are now “earmarked,” i.e., they must be put to a designated purpose; this leaves few discretionary dollars for all other state programs and services. Term-limited lawmakers will not be apt to support one another’s pet projects, as legislators now do, either out of deference to Titans or stemming from the camaraderie and friendship born of years of serving together. Short stints in the capitol will mean narrower legislative perspective: Lawmakers will keep their eye on the local ball and be disinclined to explore the “big picture”—the best interest of 10 million people. An understanding of the need to balance the local view with the statewide perspective will be relatively rare.

There won’t be time to build trust. Trust guides political behavior, notwithstanding the perception of the cynical public. Honor of word, respect, and integrity are integral to the political process. But learning who to trust—whether a colleague on floor, a bureau head in a state department, or a lobbyist in town—takes time and experience. Time, under term limits, will not allow the normal sizing up of credibility and identification of people who know the facts, dispense them objectively, and can be counted on to be truthful. Facts always will be negotiable in politics and never more so than under term limits.

Newcomers to the legislature have at first always relied for information and perspective more on the people back home than on those they don’t yet know well in Lansing. Under term limits, the shift never will be made from local to broader trust. This means that the local school superintendent’s voice may be louder than that of the lobbyist for the association of school administrators. The neighborhood grocer’s comments about item pricing and bar codes will ring truer than the message delivered by the state grocery industry spokesperson.

The Senate will gain power and attention. Former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds was the first to conjecture that the Senate will gain and the House of Representatives will lose influence as term limits phases in. One reason is that many representatives will be moving to the Senate, taking with them substantial legislative experience and policy knowledge, leaving less-experienced people to replace them in the House. In California, 21 assemblymen have moved into the 40-member state Senate.

Also, senators enjoy longer tenure than representatives (eight versus six years), and there are fewer of them (38 versus 110); hence, lobbyists likely will invest more time both with the Senate as a whole and with individual members. With House members’ terms expiring every two years and a host of them leaving every biennium, lobbyists will find themselves spread far too thin to cover all representatives and will focus instead on the smaller, more-longevous upper chamber.

More women, minorities, and Republicans will enter the legislature, and they will gain appreciably more power. Long-time incumbents, first elected in an era in which women and minorities were seen by many voters as less credible officeholders, will be moving aside to make way for newcomers. In the California Assembly, women members have increased (from 16 to 20), as have Hispanic-Americans (from 4 to 14) and Asian-Americans (from none to 2). Women now lead 12 of the Assembly’s 27 committees, including its appropriations body. In the Michigan House, women now chair only 8 of the 28 committees; in the Senate, the lone majority (Republican) woman chairs two committees.

Republicans probably will fare marginally better than now. For starters, Republican sympathizers instinctively feel less sanguine about the role of government and, therefore, traditionally have had less an appetite for going into the business of politics than have Democrats. Likewise, the GOP “farm team” is weaker—there are fewer Republicans than Democrats in local elected posts, frequently the springboard to state legislative office. Moreover, the Republican Party has found it difficult to recruit their more prominent civic leaders to run for the legislature because of the financial sacrifice they would endure. The shorter-term commitments of a citizen-based legislature will be more appealing to some Republicans than the full-time, long-term commitments of the present.

There will be more local-government experience in the state capitol. It is natural for a county commissioner, city council member, township trustee, or school board member to use local identity and organization as a springboard to the legislature. Currently, 25–30 percent of state legislators formerly held local office. This percentage easily could double over time. As a consequence, future legislatures may be more sensitive to municipal roles and responsibilities and more attentive to municipal issues such as jails, local roads, K–12 education, and land use planning, zoning, and annexation.

Legislative leadership will be weak. Perhaps no other consequence matches this in its effect on the flow and nature of public policy. Leadership stints will be short. Virtually the moment a Senate majority/minority leader or the Speaker of the House assumes office, s/he will be a lame duck, far less capable than before in disciplining wayward members, setting committee and floor agendas, and managing the flow of legislation.

Florida’s Speaker of the House, T. K. Weathell, describes term limits as “clear-cutting old forests. They don’t bother the underbrush much, but they’re hell on the tall timber.”

Perhaps even more important is that legislative leaders will have, in policy negotiation with the governor, far less assurance than before that they can honor deals brokered behind the scenes. This leaves governors with potentially less policy clout. To forge majorities, both legislative leaders and governors may have to spend a good deal of time negotiating with hosts of individual legislators, and, far more frequently than today, have to compromise away details to pick up a few added votes.

The power of Lansing’s premier lobbyists will grow. Much of state government’s institutional memory will reside with lobbyists—individuals, multi-client lobby firms, and trade associations. Lobbying firms and trade associations likely will grow in size as their clients and members demand that relationships be quickly established with all legislative newcomers. I believe lobbyists increasingly will recruit and finance candidates and offer them in-kind election help (research, sound bites, and organizing tips), which will enable the lobbyists to get a head start in relationship building. Until now, they generally have had an easier time of it; they simply backed the incumbent and didn’t have to intervene in the races for the few open seats.

Legislators will be less productive. I predict that any given state representative’s attitudes during his/her three terms will be, respectively, “Don’t know,” “Don’t rock the boat,” and “Don’t care.” Quite possibly, the third and fourth years—the middle term—of House service will be the most productive for the average member, but committee leadership generally will not come until the fifth and sixth years—the final, “don’t care,” term.

Wild Cards

There are two other frequently discussed changes, but the jury is out on whether they actually will come to pass.

The executive branch will run amok. Many people believe that term limits will vastly expand the power of the executive branch—the governor and the career civil servants in departments and agencies. It is true that unsophisticated and inexperienced legislators may cede to the executive branch the power of knowledge, memory, and data. It also is true that if legislators let themselves be dominated by local issues and perspective, they will lack the heart and expertise to lead on statewide problems.

But, as I mentioned earlier, because legislative leaders will be weaker than before, future governors will find themselves tied up in much more extensive legislative negotiation, and these chief executives will confront considerably more chiseling away of their policy initiatives. Remember, too, that the governor also is term limited; if reelected, s/he immediately is a lame duck. Finally, many Michigan governors (in recent memory, Swainson, Milliken, and Engler) were capitol insiders upon taking office: They knew legislative leaders going in—their temperament, personal history, trustworthiness, and interests. In the future, even capitol insiders who make it to governor will see hosts of new, unknown faces being sworn into office at the same time.

With respect to the bureaucracy’s influence, it can be argued that technocrats will be the repositories of knowledge about policy issues and hence, they will gain influence. But it is possible that the legislative staff, to stay competitive, will grow into greater policy professionalism. Because many legislative staffers today earn more than the legislators, it is fairly easy to predict that many term-limited lawmakers will move into appointed staff positions, thereby preserving institutional memory and procedural experience within the legislative branch. Also arguing against the technocrats winning all the marbles is that with legislators serving shorter stints and party control of the chambers shifting back and forth, it is hard to see how civil servants will be able to gain and retain the levels of trust, familiarity, and confidence that many now enjoy with legislators and legislative leaders.

Moderation in the pace of making public policy will be lost. With term limits, one can envision an incredibly rapid pace that stems from the impatience, immaturity, wild swings in party control, ideological fervor, passion, and the disappearance of Titans. Election mandates may be stretched beyond proportion. Whole statutory codes could be written and rewritten with each new wave of senators and representatives.

However, the pace could slacken, as is now occurring in California. Local, Balkanized interests can paralyze the legislative process. Amateurism can lead to sluggishness; inexperienced legislators can become ensnared in procedural details. Less capital city camaraderie can lead to fewer negotiated deals. The upwardly mobile tend to exercise great caution, lest they unsettle their chances of making a move to higher office.

Coping with the Consequences

Evermore, chaos theory explains better than linear reasoning the changes hitting society. Likely, students of the former will be better than political scientists at predicting the political and policy consequences of term limits.

This much we know: All dynamics of state policymaking will change. Bartholomew Gill, an Irish mystery writer, neatly sums up an important difference between the genders, but the distinction he makes is applicable to making public policy, and future legislators would be well served to heed it.

Men go at everything hammers and tongs, with fists clenched, but life is best approached on the carom—gently, obliquely, with some understanding of different spheres.

The art of the carom is the science of working with term limits. Many people grossly oversimplify term limits’ effects and consequences; they either proclaim the change to be the greatest revitalization of democracy since Jefferson or foretell the utter disinstitutionalization of democracy.

The benefits and drawbacks of such a complex, crosscutting change as term limits are not black and white, with clear winners and losers. More important, politics—among all professions—most easily finds ways to adapt. It is in the very nature of politics and politicians to be malleable and flexible, brokering one side against another, ever seeking the comfortable consensus and center. The hallmark of politics is resilience. Government’s internal processes will change, but the public may not witness a penny’s worth of difference in policy outcomes.

Michigan’s politics adapted very well to the Progressive Era’s introduction of secret balloting, the initiative, and the referendum. They adapted to enormous changes struck in the 1963 state constitution. They adapted to one-man, one-vote. They will adapt to term limits.

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Public Sector Consultants has published three previous papers on this subject: “Political Tenure” (by Craig Ruff, 1990), “Term Limitation: Unraveling the Constitution” (by Rep. Maxine Berman, 1991), and “Term Limits and New Political Realities” (by Craig Ruff 1992). For copies call (517) 484-4954.

Copyright 1997

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