Politics & Prejudices: Term limit tragedy

Want to know why state government is broken beyond repair? For one thing, in our term-limited universe, those serving in our legislature don't really know what they're doing.

Most state legislators aren't exactly known for their passionate devotion to the work ethic. They adjourn for recesses and take long vacations. But two weeks ago, the Michigan House of Representatives actually stayed in session almost all night long. They didn't quit till around 4:30 one Friday morning. Were they trying to finally finish a deal to fix the roads? Find a way to make higher education affordable? Reform education? Give us a more fair tax system?

Don't be silly. Our full-time representatives would never keep the lights burning or alter their normal two-day-a week session schedule for anything that important.

No, they were staying up all night struggling to try to expel Michigan's fun couple, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat.

In case you weren't hanging on every word from Lansing then, I'll give you a little recap: Those were the two sanctimonious, deeply religious, gay-hating Christians who got elected last November pledging to restore morality to government. Instead, they seemed to have devoted virtually all their energies to screwing each other.

They merged their offices, never learned how to do their jobs, mostly ignored responsibilities to constituents, and required staffers to help cover up their sexual shenanigans, firing them when they proved insufficiently eager to do so.

Eventually, this blew up in their face when Courser, who seems to be a combination of religious nut Jim Jones and the stupidest of the Three Stooges, concocted a plot.

Dimly aware that everyone knew they were having an affair, Courser had a truly Larry, Curly, and Moe idea. He'd have a staff member send everyone an anonymous email saying he, Courser, was caught behind a nightclub with a male prostitute. The staffer refused, taped the conversation, and took the tape to The Detroit News. Then everything exploded.

Barely a month later came the all-night session in which Courser, weasel to the end, resigned moments before being thrown out; Gamrat, sniveling in her seat, had to be expelled.

You may know most of that, if you were following the story, and may wonder why I'm revisiting it. Fair enough.

Because this isn't really about these two losers, who seem to have gotten to Lansing and discovered sex the way a Michigan State University freshman normally discovers booze.

This is all about term limits.

Term limits are why Michigan has a completely dysfunctional legislature. Contrary to what most people believe, and the ravings of the likes of Donald Trump, governing is an art that takes time, patience, and skill. Learning how to work together efficiently takes time and practice for any group.

That may be why the Detroit Tigers have really stunk for most of this season. They haven't been a "team" so much as a collection of purchased, high-priced players, and it showed.

Gamrat and Courser were exceptional only in that they flaunted their profound ignorance. Courser, for example, defiantly told a staff member he didn't know how to amend a bill, and didn't think he should have to know.

Gamrat was so intellectually feeble she didn't appear to understand she was supposed to keep what she heard in GOP caucus meetings confidential, and appeared to think confessing her mistakes meant she'd automatically be entitled to stay, and complained bitterly when she wasn't.

But they are far from alone. A few years ago, Mike Simeck, the then-superintendent of Berkley Public Schools, went up to see the lawmakers on education committees at the beginning of one session. That night he came over to my house, rattled.

"They don't know anything," he said. "They don't know what Proposal A is. They don't understand Title IX," the law that says women's sports should be funded equally.

Whether coincidentally or not, he soon left the state for a better-paying job. Years ago, Bill Ballenger, who later founded the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, ran for and won a seat in the state legislature.

He told me before he decided to run, he had read and studied the Michigan constitution. These days, some legislators seem only dimly aware the Constitution exists.

Years ago, nobody became Speaker of the House until they'd served in that body at least a decade. Today, thanks to term limits, they often become speaker after two years.

They don't really know their colleagues in their own party very well, let alone those on the other side. Back prior to the mid-1990s, you always had a core of representatives who had been there 20 years or more. They knew how the rules worked.

They knew their colleagues, what they wanted, what made them tick, as well as the guys on the other side. They also knew members of the other party weren't entirely evil.

They usually — not always, but usually — managed to get the job done, whether it was school funding or road repair.

Today, well, good luck with that.

You serve six years in the lower house, and/or eight in the state Senate, and you are gone for life. When that's the case, your main goal in your last term is likely kissing up to some lobbyist who can hire you when your moment of power ends.

What happens then? The voters, who are usually too busy to pay much attention to the clown show in Lansing, all too often elect someone with a name like yours. Husbands swap seats with wives; fathers with sons, competent or not.

The current worst-case scenario is, of course, shoot-'em-up Virgil Smith Jr., a Democratic state Senator from Detroit. He succeeded his father, who is now a judge. Sonny's prior achievements mainly included shoplifting and drunk driving.

This May, he reportedly fired many shots into his ex-wife's Mercedes after a sordid sexual encounter, and is now awaiting trial on a raft of felonies. That's a bit worse than the canoodling couple, but nobody's trying to throw him out.

Why not? Well, hypocritical Democrats piously say his bads weren't done in the course of his legislative duties. Republicans like having him there, both to embarrass the Democrats and because Virg the lesser is often willing to sell his poor inner-city constituents down the river, voting with Republicans on cutting education or weakening car insurance.

The list goes on. Lobbyists and special interests love term limits, of course; it make the lawmakers much easier to control.

We got stuck with term limits after the voters ratified a state constitutional amendment in 1992. Ironically, many seem to have voted for it because they thought they could get rid of perpetual congressmen. The federal courts said no way.

But we did have the right to ruin government in this state. Look — if you really care about politics and want to help make life better, don't run for office. The game is rigged.

Instead, figure out how to lead a drive to accomplish one of two things: Amend the state constitution to A) require a nonpartisan commission to redistrict congressional seats and the legislature B) amend it to totally repeal term limits.

Do those things, and we'll have a functioning democracy again. Otherwise, we're just playing musical chairs on the MichiTitanic. And things will get worse every year.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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