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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Last Term Fever

April 20, 2018

In 1992, Michigan voters approved the toughest-in-the-nation legislative term limits – two 4-year terms for senators, three 2-year terms for representatives. They did so overwhelmingly despite then-Attorney Gen. Frank Kelley’s admonition that Michigan already had a system of term limits called elections.

A quarter of a century later, have some of the predicted chickens come home to roost? Predictions about rewarding inexperience? Predictions about strengthening the influence of lobbyists and career legislative staff while weakening the power of elected officials? Predictions about short-termers scurrying around to find alternative elective jobs, often at the city or county level? Predictions about increased partisanship?

Or have term limits achieved the professed goals of encouraging citizen-legislators rather than ominous-sounding “career politicians” and reducing corruption? 

Even if there have been negative effects, intended or unintended, voters are in no hurry to loosen, let alone eliminate term limits from the Michigan Constitution. Proposals to do that have died, died, died.

This year there are 23 term-limited representatives and 25 term-limited senators.

Now a new national study by political scientists has discovered another unintended consequence – a sense of less engagement in their jobs during legislators’ last terms. 

“Legislators are less productive in their final term than in their previous terms,” wrote Alexander Fouirnaies of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and political scientist Andrew Hall of Stanford University. “We find that legislators who can no longer seek reelection sponsor fewer bills, are less productive on committees and are absent for more floor votes, on average.”

The study said, “Elections appear to be quite effective at inducing incumbents to be more productive. Rather than taking advantage of a blind electorate, incumbent legislators work harder when anticipating future elections.”

Hall put it more bluntly in a phone conversation: Last-termers “become lazier because they don’t care as much.”

The study also found that last-termers don’t change the degree to which they cooperate with their own party. In other words, they don’t alter their ideological platforms to become more moderate or more extreme on their way out the door.

Where do these conclusions come from? An analysis of about 780,000 bills and 16 million roll call voting records for about 6,000 lawmakers in 14 states that have partisan two-house legislatures and a limit of three or more terms. The Michigan House is included because of its three-term limit but the state Senate wasn’t because of its two-term limit.

Those are, of course, generalizations because each term-limited lawmaker is an individual. 

One factor is what the study calls “electoral incentives” – if you’re not running for reelection, why stay fully engaged? It also recognizes that not all term-limited legislators retire from electoral politics. 

“A main purpose of elections is to influence incumbent behavior by forcing them to consider their prospects for reelection,” the study said.

With or without term limits, members of the Michigan House have often opted to run for the state Senate and state senators have had their eye on Congress. 

For example, blocked from reelection this year by term limits, Reps. Bob Kosowski, D-Westland, Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, Roger Victory, R-Georgetown Township, and Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway, are running for open Senate seats. Meanwhile, term-limited Sens. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, and Steve Bieda, D-Warren, are running for the U.S. House. 

In an interview last November, Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley told the Detroit News, “Leadership really matters, and experience really matters. I don’t know about you, but whether I’m looking for a haircut or auto repairs, I don’t deliberately seek out people who have less than six years of experience and don’t plan on doing it very long.”

Other political science research has examined the practical impact of legislative term limits.

Hall says, “It’s empowering the governor, it’s empowering the staff and it’s really empowering the lobbyists.” And, he says, “You can no longer hold people accountable in their last term.”

In 2012, California voters liberalized term limits so newly elected members can serve a total of twelve years in the state Assembly, the Senate or a combination. 

“It seems already to be changing the landscape,” Hall says. “The speaker can be the speaker for a longer term.” 

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

April 19, 2018 · Filed under Freedman

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jack McHugh // Apr 20, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Alas, here is the main effect that I have seen: For most lawmakers their top priority is finding that perfect low-accountability political job – elective or appointed – that lets them live comfortably and feel like an important person.

    Not 9-5 civil service employment either – that’s too close to real work. But something that avoids the “hard” accountability of employment in a real-deal for-profit enterprise.

    Think ISD or community college PIO, board member or officer at a TIFA, government affairs for a hospital, a gig in the vast statewide “economic development” archipelago, etc. Liquor Control Commission is the gold ring but hardly the only ripe plum.

    Not just in their last term either – the job hunt starts as soon as they’re elected.

    The most pernicious effect is to magnify the “go along to get along” tendencies of political actors who mostly made it to the legislature by already following that model.

  • 2 John Q. Public // Apr 20, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    That they sponsor fewer bills is a benefit, not a detriment. Were it up to me, each legislator would be limited to sponsoring three bills per term, and every bill introduced would go to the floor for a roll call vote–none of this nonsense of “leadership” determining what gets out of committee.

    That way, they’d have to decide whose bills were more important–the lobbyists’ or the public’s.

    Studley parrots that ubiquitous and ridiculous comparison between hiring for personal professional services and voting for legislators. When I do the former, I’m not stuck for anywhere from, practically speaking, four to fourteen years with some moron chosen for me by others, typically against my will. I can switch any time I’m not satisfied.

    Mr. McHugh touched only lightly on the most common landing place for politicos–VP of government/legislative affairs for a not-for-profit.


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