Do term-limited lawmakers get lazy?

By ERIC FREEDMAN

LANSING — 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 the state 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 local 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 state Constitution. Proposals to do that have died.

This year Michigan has 23 term-limited representatives and 25 term-limited senators.

A new national study 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 said in an interview: 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.

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 with 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, while 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 Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is 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 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.”

This column originally appeared on Domamagzine.com.