The Final Lesson From … Whatever This Was: End Term Limits
I am old. I am cranky. I am cynical. Yet, I still am possessed with a sense of wonder and awe and simple adoration. I marvel at the night sky, at the dawn breaking over the ocean’s horizon. I delight in a baby’s laugh and am a sucker for videos of puppies and kitties.
And for the first time in more than 40 years of observing, reporting, analyzing and yes, respecting Michigan government and politics, I sat Thursday and into Friday slack-jawed, eyes wide as saucers, my brain a cauldron of synaptic overuse in wondering awe at whatever the bloody hell was going on at the Michigan House of Representatives in regards to expelling – or maybe not – Rep. Todd Courser (R-Silverwood) and Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell).
I watched, I listened and decided I have stayed quiet too long, for more than 20 years too long.
One factor could have helped enormously in taking the unpleasantness regarding expulsion, and instead of letting it dissolve to the soggy, sloppy mess that happened Thursday and Friday, kept it as a process with some dignity and respect to Michigan’s people: an end to term limits.
The time has long since come, dear fellow citizens, to rid ourselves of term limits. It was a noble, though wrong-headed, experiment to provide more responsive leadership to the state’s needs. It has not. Those who supported the effort in 1992, and those supporting it now, were and are completely sincere. Many of my friends supported term limits, some still do.
But term limits have failed, failed utterly. And the best evidence of that is the disaster that occurred before Mr. Courser finally resigned and Ms. Gamrat was expelled.
I have been witness to every expulsion proceeding, except that in the 1880s. Before the Courser/Gamrat situation, every other proceeding was under the control of legislators who had served before the advent of term limits.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats can take pride in how they handled the current situation. The unintentionally ham-handed proceedings were candidly a result of term limits. Unlike the previous expulsion efforts, there was a decided lack of intentional bipartisanship, and an overall failure to demonstrate the proper concern for the integrity of the institution.
Instead, the Courser/Gamrat scandal was treated as an enormous annoyance, better to be dealt with quickly if clumsily instead of efficiently, effectively and with at least some dignity. And the scandal has been an excuse for both sides to employ inappropriate and useless partisan tactics that has impressed absolutely no one.
In the previous expulsions, the leaders of both sides stood together to say the matter would be handled fairly and completely. Their open concern was for the good of the House or Senate. Just like in war, in an expulsion, there should be no parties.
Prior to term limits, and in the early years of term limits, that ultimate concern was understood.
Why? What makes the difference? Why should term limits so corrupt the ability to come together when both sides must come together?
The greatest benefit of the pre-term limit era was the ability for legislators to get to know one another and respect each other. Yes, there was the ability to develop expertise on subject matters, procedure and budgetary issues. But it was the ability to work with each other, craft compromises that respected each other’s political beliefs, and to understand that when they had to oppose each other it was business, not personal.
It is impossible to understate the importance and significance of that human characteristic in governing. It is a characteristic one starts to see in the legislators who have been here the longest under term limits, and then it vanishes when they do.
That characteristic of mutual respect also mutes much of the political rancor. The parties still took their shots at one another in years past and ran feverish campaigns. But they did not equate their opponents with Satan; they did not see them as lost souls doomed to eternity.
And when faced with something like an expulsion, this ability to work together was invaluable. The respect for both the institution and the state’s people took precedence over principles – that all too often are convenient rather than sincere – and party affiliation.
Look, both Democrats and Republicans failed in handling this expulsion with dignity. And it began right at the beginning. Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) and House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) should have been shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, hell, hand in hand, saying their first priorities were to protect the House and the people when the scandal erupted. They should have worked out all details of the investigation and the special committee together, or at least in close enough consultation that neither side could complain of the other. They should have instructed their caucuses of what was going to happen and how everyone was going to behave during the process.
Whose fault is it that they didn’t? Honestly, it is the fault of the voters who convinced themselves term limits was the best option for good government.
Essentially, all pre-term limited lawmakers were gone by 2005. So in 10 years, how many really significant, meaningful policy changes have been enacted? Tax cuts, shifts, increases don’t count because they are as solid and long-lasting as Jell-O in the sun on the Equator. How many significant policies that really help the state have been enacted in 10 years? I can think of one.
Before term limits there were men and women in the Legislature who were great, truly great: Bill Ryan, Harry Gast, George Montgomery, Pete Kok, Mary Brown, Paul Hillegonds, Jim Dressel, Lynn Jondahl, Shirley Johnson, Bill Bryant, Joe Forbes, Morris Hood, Bobby Crim, Bill Faust, Mike Busch, Bob VanderLaan, Dick Young, I could name another dozen or more. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives – all who cared about the state more than party or ideology.
I truly mean no disrespect to the men and women who have served under term limits, but could any be singled out for the almost indefinable quality of great? Hardworking, yes; intelligent, well most of them, yes; sincere, dedicated, -- yes to each. Great? No. I am sorry, but no. Some had the potential to be great; they did not have the time to show greatness.
Certainly life was not ideal under a Legislature without term limits. There were knaves and crooks (David Jaye, Cas Ogonowski come to mind), and one of the worst scandals to ever hit the Legislature happened. But even in the painful resolution of those incidents, lawmakers who had worked together were able to put aside, or at least limit, partisanship for good resolutions.
And I could certainly, as a citizen, without term limits, encourage rotating committee chairs, moving members out of certain committees and putting them elsewhere to ensure more openness and less coziness with special interests.
Yes, I know Congress has no term limits and look at it. However, in a state Legislature, members have an inherent closeness that defies Congress. Most the issues affect all the state, maybe in greater or lesser degree, but the problems of Detroit are the same problems in Adrian or Marquette. Alabama’s problems may not be those of Wyoming, and New Hampshire may not care about Nevada’s issues, for instance.
Legislators also have friends, colleagues and family all over the state. Just think of the people you know and where they are from. You will name a dozen places in Michigan quickly. No member of Congress has family in every state (at least I don’t think so). This is not trivial; it speaks to why legislators can better respect and work with each other: Legislators have a commonality of place, therefore a commonality of concern that is lacking too often in Congress.
Many people have argued for a part-time legislature. Which gets you what? I have watched legislatures for more than 40 years now. Name one part-time legislature that works splendidly? I’m waiting. No, part-time legislatures are no better than any other, and are subject to their own political games that render them no more effective than what we have seen here.
And a part-time legislature with term limits? Sweet angels above, protect us.
In the course of legislative history, is there really anything more absurd than the spectacle of lawmakers sitting hours, munching pizza and subs, joking with each other, when the issue to be decided is if fellow members are cast out? This is what Michigan had to watch on Thursday and Friday, because this is the House, the Legislature, we deserve.
We the voters decided something that seems more like a high school dance committee is what we need to govern, and on Thursday and Friday that is pretty much what we got.
I have no illusions. Term limits will be hard to repeal or even amend. But for the good of our state, truly, truly, truly, term limits must go.Back to top