Repeal term limits now 

If you need any further proof that the stars are out of alignment, that global warming has changed everything, and that the son of Satan is hiding in a stand of cattails somewhere near Wyandotte, here it is.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is pushing a good idea. It wants to change the law that has ruined our Legislature by imposing rigorous and lifetime term limits on state officeholders. But they don’t go far enough.

Want something to do next summer that could make a big difference to this state? Start a group, begin a petition drive, and repeal the idiotic law passed in 1992 that says we no longer have the right to elect whom we want to state office.

Not only can’t we keep them there as long as we want, under the mess we’ve made, our legislators can’t even stay long enough to learn their jobs.

Here’s how all this happened. Thirteen years ago, the politicians put a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot that severely limited the terms of all officeholders. The voters went for it like a piranha for a goldfish.

They way it works is simple. You can be elected to a maximum of three two-year terms in the state House of Representatives. Then you’re barred from that body for life. You can serve two four-year terms in the state Senate, as governor, attorney general or secretary of state. Then, again, you can’t run again. Ever.

When this went into effect, David Gubow, my state rep at the time, said that from now on the only people ineligible to hold office in Michigan would be those in state prisons — and those who had done a good job and won the support of the voters.

We were sold this idea by sly old John Engler, governor at the time and the Darth Vader of our politics. He figured that with term limits, the number of experienced state legislators who knew the ropes would soon be gone. That meant there would be few or no legislators who ever knew enough about how the process works to provide an effective balance to whatever he — or any savvy governor — wanted to do. Naturally, that’s not how the thing was sold.

What we were told, dear children, is that this would bring many fresh faces to our politics. That we would get rid of those hidebound old fossils who’d been there too long and were pimples on the prick of progress.

And best of all, the law was written to apply to our congressmen too. That set sphincters a-twitching in many a moon-faced Republican who was dying to do in John Conyers. No doubt a few good Democrats relished the thought of giving a few longtime GOP congressmen a hearty flush.

But the joke was on the voters. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the Constitution of the United States could have predicted what happened next. In fancy legal language, the federal courts explained that “you yahoos can play with your state constitution all you want, but you can’t mess with the rules regarding federal officeholders.”

Normally, that would’ve torpedoed the entire misguided law. But the forces of darkness anticipated this. They put a “decoupling” provision in the amendment. That meant it was written so that if the courts invalidated part of the law, the rest of it would stay in force.

Term limits took effect in 1998. Before that, a group of political scientists at Wayne State prepared to do a massive, years-long study of them. Last year, they published their findings in a book, Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits (Palgrave/Macmillan).

What they discovered scientifically is what everybody who pays attention to politics already knew: Term limits are a howling failure.

Professor Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, the book’s main author, said if she were giving Michigan term limits a grade, it would be “an unimpressive D to D+.”

Her group found that term limits lived up to none of the promises made for them but one — they brought new faces into the mix. (Rounding up the homeless and pressing them into service would do that too.)

According to the study, term limits gave lobbyists and bureaucrats more power, which is no mystery. They’ve been in Lansing for eons. Members of the House never stay more than six years. Bill Kulsea, a legendary old state Capitol reporter, used to say it took six years just to find where all the doors were.

The study found term limits actually decreased the number of ordinary citizens running for office and increased the number of political hacks. Term limits, the study found, made the influence of money even more important.

And, oh — don’t look for your term-limited state legislators to do much of anything for you or for the common good during their last years in office. They have bigger fish to fry — namely, finding their next job.

What’s worst of all is that term limits work to prevent legislators from ever knowing enough to understand the state’s deepest problems, and having the time and political skill needed for solutions.

Currently, Michigan is falling like a rock in terms of being able to compete nationally. Partly, this is because we have an irresponsibly flawed state budget process that was set up by a bunch of legislators who knew they were on their way out. Therefore, they’d never be held accountable.

Fixing things might have no political payoff for years, and might involve short-term pain. But thanks to term limits, it’s now all about the short-term, all the time. Win the next election, and to hell with the state after that.

Things are so bad even the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, normally a shill for the stupider elements in the Republican Party, noticed at last.

What the Chamber wants us to do is to tinker with term limits so legislators could serve more time (up to 14 years) in either the House or Senate, but no more overall. The Chamber also wants legislators to reveal their outside investments, income and property holdings, and forfeit salary if they don’t show up.

Nothing wrong with most of that, but it means putting a Band-Aid on a system with a fatal hemorrhage. Term limits need to be repealed completely.

And, finally, here’s the reason why. They are profoundly, overwhelmingly un-American, and they’re profoundly anti-democracy.

Listen, if this is still a democracy, the people should have the right to select whomever they want to for as long as they want for whatever job they want.

What if the candidate is a howling horse’s ass? What if he’s 95 years old, wets his pants, and has been in office since 1938? One would hope that voters would toss out anyone like that. But if the concept of democracy means anything, we should be able to elect whomever we want to. Even if our choice for president is Alfred E. Neuman.

I know, I know.

By the way, we always had the right kind of term limits. They’re called elections. We can vote the scoundrels out of there, and nature provides a backup. If you don’t like this column, take heart. Fifty years from now, I won’t be writing it for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is that I’ll be dead.

No matter your situation, term limits cometh, for us all.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com. Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or michiganradio.org

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