How Michigan can have term limits and lifetime service

A modest proposal to bring the best of both worlds to Lansing

You want lawmakers with experience and gravitas. Not newbies, led around by lobbyists.

But you understand, too, that power corrupts. You’ve seen people hang on too long. You’ve seen power for power’s sake, disconnected from service or accomplishment, used only to enrich the self.

What to do? The Lansing model – 14 years, consisting of 3-two-year House terms and 2-four-year Senate terms – has its flaws. Specifically, those lobbyists, and the outsize influence they hold on people who spend much of their service learning the job.

But the flaws of the Washington, D.C., model – lifetime service, so long as you keep getting elected – are just as clear. Regardless the experience level of the lawmakers, Congress is as led around by lobbyists and special interests as any state legislature.

So why choose between the flawed systems of term limits and lifetime service? Why not have both?

My proposal: Let them serve, as long as they keep getting elected. But, after every fourth House cycle or every second Senate cycle, the politician must sit out one election cycle. No lobbying, no government jobs: fully detach fully from the public teat.

If this was synched up with redistricting every decade, incumbents could even be spared a run in a new seat that might not be favorable.

If you like your politician, don’t worry. That person can always run again! But next time, it won’t be as an incumbent. It will be as a fellow citizen who wants to serve neighbors: sitting among their neighbors, in the audience, not on the seat of honor.

Time away from politics, without the stink of a loss, offers benefits for the politician, too. It turns a sabbatical into a form of service. How someone spends their time out of power tells the story of their service. Do they get their hands dirty in their community, or do they wear makeup on cable TV appearances?

Time away from politics will inspire reflection on their path. How they started out as a parent who cared about their kid’s school and ran for the school board. Or a resident who cared about their city, and ran for city council. How it all started with giving a damn and showing up.

Time away from politics will let them watch and experience politics, not just perpetrate it. It will encourage a depth of perspective that our leaders lack.

Late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said “all politics is local,” but that’s not true now, if it ever was. At the local level, it’s more government than politics. After winner and loser is decided, it’s again about public safety, roads and taxes.

Even at the county commission level, you’re further from the heart of the people. And capital cities might as well be outer space.

Issues like “a drag queen in every school” don’t come up in local politics. Only people who want to be elected to Lansing or Washington talk like that.

There is a proposal on the November ballot to amend Michigan’s term limits law by allowing four House terms and three Senate terms, up from the current three and two.

As a sweetener, the proposal carries a transparency measure, which is that lawmakers “must file annual financial disclosure reports on their income, assets, liabilities, gifts from lobbyists, positions held in certain organizations, and agreements on future employment.”

No such disclosures are required currently, which is incredible.

It’s a good plan, backed by the likes of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, along former House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican. The Detroit News reports that early poll data shows “overwhelming support” for the proposal.

Under my plan, Bolger could be a Michigan representative again, or throughout his lifetime. Under the ballot proposal, he’d get just one more term.

Michigan needs an active-minded citizenship. Picking new leaders helps.

But when the cast of characters becomes too great, we decide their character matters little. We don’t have time to hunt up their record, so we vote red or blue for shorthand. That does not help.

Michigan needs a balance between incumbency and meritocracy. This system puts those two goals in direct conflict.

There will come a time when the four-term incumbent is term-limited out and replaced by a representative who is also well-liked. They’re not just a seat-holder or a disciple, they were elected on their own merits.

In the next election, faced with two likable, electable people who’ve held the seat recently, the public would be forced to examine the character of each and decide who would do the better job — and comforted to know that both could.

James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. He writes a Sunday column on issues in Michigan government. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.