Maximizing incumbency in Michigan?

Posted: Oct 02, 2005 12:00 AM

The target's been chosen: term limits. The gun's being waved around, too. And there's a bullet in the Chamber.

Well, in Michigan's Chamber of Commerce. Seems that the Chamber has come up with a new way to hit term limits. The illustrious business lobby thinks it has a magic bullet. On it is carved the number "14."

So why is the Chamber gunning for term limits?

Well, the Chamber is a lobbyist group. Lobbyists hate term limits. Always have, always will. This really isn't a mystery. The longer politicians stay in office, the more time lobbyists have to work them over, put them in their pockets.

So what's with the number "14"?

At present in Michigan, a politician may serve three two-year terms (six years) in the state House, and two four-year terms (eight years) in the state Senate. After being termed out of one house, he or she may run for office in the other. The total years one may serve in this manner? Fourteen.

So some genius came up with this idea. Why not keep 14 years as the overall limit in both houses of the legislature, but allow a politician to stay that long in just one house?

Well, point that gun some other direction and let me tell you why not.

One of term limits' chief functions is to decrease the power of incumbents. Make it a little harder to get entrenched in the system. Open it up to competition.

Currently, after being termed out of, say, the House, you can run for a Senate position in Michigan. But, at this point you run as a non-incumbent. This means that some of the advantages that incumbents have disappear, or at least diminish. For a variety of reasons, Americans -- and Michiganders -- vote in incumbents at alarming rates. Without term limits, careerism is the norm, and the evils that follow creep into the system and stay there.

It's often argued, well, "tough luck." If Americans, or Michiganders -- or Lower Slobovians -- don't want careerism, then they shouldn't vote in incumbents over and over. It's as simple as that.

Except that it isn't that simple. There are incentives built into the system giving incumbents boatloads of advantage. Economists and even a few political scientists have provided a great deal of evidence and logic explaining the sad situation. I've discussed these factors before. For now, just listen to term limits' critics. The plain reason they want to "reform" the limits is to increase the power of incumbency.

And certainly, as shown in many states, term limits have opened up the system. To whom? Minorities, women . . . and, mostly, new legislators who have not yet been inured to the sound of their constituents' voices.

Another function of term limits is to "de-bottleneck" power. With shorter terms, it's awfully hard to divvy up power in terms of seniority.

Which is why lobbyists tend to hate term limits so much, why they and special interests have voiced such bitter complaints. They like it when power is centralized in a few committees, in a few power players. It's easier to know whom to invest in, whom to schmooze.

And let it not be said that our schmoozers are slackers, or lack "experience." The Chamber's top lobbyists average nearly 30 years in the capitol's back rooms. No wonder these Old Boys (and Girls) prefer the Old Boy System.

The Old Boy System is easier to manage and far more effective.

For them.

And for nearly every other big lobbying outfit, including those with completely different agendas. Perhaps that's why the Chamber's plans for the term-limit assault were underwritten, in part, by such groups as the state's teachers' union.

So, under Michigan's Chamber of Commerce plan, the power of incumbency would increase, as would the calcification of power in a few committees and entrenched leaders. It basically maximizes the evils of incumbency while keeping an element of term limits -- in hopes that the people might buy it.

I'd rather maximize open debate, equal representation, citizen participation, and real competition. The Chamber, apparently, has other goals.

I trust that Michigan citizens are armed and ready.