The World Term Limits Have Made
JACKSON, MICH. — If the Founding Fathers were around today, they would probably take a keen interest in the budding political career of Clark Bisbee, a local travel agent in Jackson, Mich.
On an unusually warm autumn day, he pedals from house to house with a clipboard of voter lists in his handlebar basket and a stack of brochures. At each designated home, he strides past Halloween decorations and knocks. "Clark Bisbee running for state House," he says to anyone who'll open the front door. "I hope you'll consider us!"
The delivery could be smoother, and he spends too long talking with supporters rather than undecideds. But Mr. Bisbee is playing a starring role in a grand political experiment now under way in Michigan and 17 other states. By limiting how long legislators can serve, these states hope to sweep out entrenched politicians and sweep in a new breed of citizen legislator like Bisbee.
Only two states have had term limits in place long enough to feel an effect. But as term limits kick in this election in four more states, including Michigan, the results are encouraging, even if the long-term effect is far from certain, experts say.
Term limits are getting more people involved in politics and have buttressed the popular notion of a citizen legislator, someone who serves for a limited time then returns to the private sector. But as experienced legislators with years of institutional memory leave office, some observers say statehouses will become more chaotic and less efficient.
The Founding Fathers never included term limits in the Constitution, and the United States Supreme Court has ruled the idea unconstitutional for federal legislators. But term limits have survived court challenges in some states.
And the notion of a citizen legislator holds great appeal to many. "In terms of making the elections more competitive and getting more people in the process, it has been a great story," says Paul Jacob, executive director of US Term Limits, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Nationally, for example, some 10 percent of US representatives and senators have agreed voluntarily to limit their terms in office. And in Maine and California, term limits have already begun to push out state legislators. Colorado and Oregon will lose more than one-quarter of their state legislators this year. The Arkansas legislature bids farewell to half its members. But the biggest change will take place here in Michigan, where 64 of the 110 members of the state House have been forced to take their leave, including all the House leadership on both sides of the aisle.
Michiganders hope the noble theory works in practice. "I voted for it but I'm not so sure," says Terry Cheney, a commercial artist here in Jackson. "If there's a good person that's in office and he has to get out and a louse gets in, is it worth it?"
Even supporters of term limits are uncertain that it will work. "The legislature will be more confusing and chaotic," concedes Patrick Anderson, a Lansing economist and principal author of the state's 1992 term-limits amendment. "From a government perspective, you get less experience. But from a real-world perspective you get much, much more."
Indeed, the results here so far have been slightly chaotic. Although many veteran legislators retired, others have lined up for every conceivable political job from city council to county drain commissioner. A few challenged incumbents from their own party - a political no-no - in the primaries for state Senate. Meanwhile, 494 newcomers, the most since the state adopted a new Constitution in 1964, filed to run for the House in the primaries.
A few people are running who wouldn't have without term limits. At least two wives are vying to take over from their departing legislator-husbands. And Paul DeWeese, an emergency-room doctor, is running to replace the floor leader of his own party. Mr. DeWeese says he wouldn't have been able to run without two years' advance notice that the seat would be open. The Legislature is also likely to get its first two Hispanics.
Overall, however, the type of person running this year doesn't look dramatically different from previous years, says Bill Ballenger, editor of a biweekly newsletter called Inside Michigan Politics, published in Lansing. "Former county commissioners, mayors, a few farmers, teachers - it's the same old thing," he says. The number of women elected to the Legislature will be about the same as the last election, he adds, perhaps even fewer.
Term limits probably wouldn't have altered the race here in Jackson. The incumbent, Mike Griffin, says he planned to retire this year anyway after 26 years in the state House. His son, Martin, the Democratic mayor of Jackson, is running in his stead. Bisbee says he probably would have run anyway once the senior Griffin retired.
What has changed is fund-raising. So many seats are open this year that both parties and political-action committees have had to spread their money around rather than concentrate on a few races. But because Democrats are holding onto a slim six-seat majority in the House and this district represents one of a half dozen in the state that could swing either direction, outside money has continued to flow in. It represents some 40 percent of Bisbee's funds and some 90 percent of Mr. Griffin's.
An even bigger change is likely to come once the new freshmen take office.
"It's just going to be horrible," says Griffin, who opposes term limits. "Bureaucrats are going to run everything and be accountable to no one.... I don't look for a whole lot to be done."
Term limits will hurt, agrees Michael Traugott, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "I have never been a fan of this because I think it produces amateur political professionals. There's nothing inherently bad about learning about your career over time."
Mr. Ballenger, the newsletter editor, disagrees. "I don't think it's going to be a big loss; in fact it may be an improvement," he says. "I'm not sure we've got rocket scientists up there in the state legislature right now."
But even supporters of term limits worry about the effects on leadership. California, for example, has had six House Speakers in three years. The same turnover is likely here, because legislators will have to learn the ropes in four years, spend two as leaders, and then retire. Unlike in some states, legislators can never run for the state House again after serving three terms.
"It has made [the House] more contentious and more partisan because you don't have the opportunity to build the long-term relationships across the aisle," says Mickey Mortimer, a two- term Republican state representative. But "the public will have to live through it awhile and develop its own decision.... I think it's a valuable experiment because it's so different from what we've tried for the last 200 years."