Monday, January 12, 2009

Michigan term limits: So far, so good

Thanks to Dave Horenstein and the Detroit National Political Examiner for printing my full response to Horenstein' s Jan. 6 op-ed, “Term limits haven't eliminated career politicians,” in their publication.

In his op-ed, Dave Horenstein made the case that since many term-limited legislators run for new offices somehow legislative term limits have failed.

This is a straw man argument that ignores the real goals and benefits of term limits.

Term limits have been undeniably successful in promoting rotation in office in Lansing. In non-term limited legislatures across the country, including the U.S. Congress, the reelection rate of incumbents who are not under indictment approaches 100 percent.

In 2008 – a year of change – 94.8 percent of all U.S. House incumbents seeking reelection got their wish. It’s practically automatic. And, naturally, all the seniority and power resides with this entrenched elite.

Why does this occur? Because in legislatures without term limits, special interest support and press coverage for incumbents is automatic and the success rate for challengers is so low that the two parties do not adequately support their own candidates -- if they field challengers at all. In the 2008 U.S. House elections there were 56 unopposed seats and the elections were simply canceled.

In Lansing, on the other hand, seats necessarily change hands every six years in the house and eight in the Senate. Here is where Michiganders see the most obvious benefit of term limits: regular, open, competitive elections.

This gives more weight to Michiganders votes, provides greater opportunities for citizens to run for office, brings a wider range of experience to the legislature, broadens the circle of those with intimate understanding of the legislative process, reduces opportunities for graft and remedies interdistrict inequities of power due to seniority.

Meanwhile, ousted incumbents who seek new seats are not shoo-ins, but must run as a non-incumbents and often face a challenge by another term-limited politician in a competitive, open race. It is such races where voters face a real choice.

If it is indeed true that Lansing attracts more than its share of careerists, this cannot be due to a reform that throws a roadblock in their way. Instead, one should look to the fact that Lansing offers a full-time, year-round job at the second-highest legislative salary in the nation.

Maybe term limits are just the first step in a reform process that’s not finished yet. But so far, so good.