Efforts are underway again to make the Legislature “part-time.” This time, they are led by Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a whip-smart former state lawmaker who I count as a friend and outstanding public servant.
I’ve been a registered lobbyist in Michigan for more than 25 years. I support limiting the number of session days our Legislature can meet. However, in my opinion, while Calley’s proposal may make good populist politics for him, it amounts to bad public policy.
There’s a better way than his proposed constitutional amendment to limit our Legislature’s session days while, at the same time, ensuring that Michigan voters and taxpayers are served by engaged and informed legislators and a process that maximizes the passage of effective laws and policies.
Let’s first be clear: Michigan is already a part-time legislature state — if you define part-time by the number of session days held by the House and Senate. Last year the Michigan Legislature met 81 days. In the last 50 years, lawmakers have held an average of 107 session days a year.
Calley’s proposal would prohibit the Legislature from meeting after April 15 each year. In effect, it would create one, continuous 90-day legislative session starting in mid-January. A single, continuous 90-day session is a terrible way to manage state government and an even worse way to make policy.
A better idea is creating a “Limited-Session Legislature” that could meet no more than 90 or 100 days each year, but would not be packed into the first four months of the year and would not have to end exactly 90 days after the first come-to-order gavel. This is a better idea for two substantive reasons:
First, the key to making good public policy is deliberation, not the lack of it. Making legislation is like hiring movers. You don’t want the fastest handling your valuables, you want the most deliberate. The same holds true in making laws. The challenges and issues confronting state government are often complex. It is folly to believe they can all be solved in 90 consecutive days every year.
Second, we elect our legislators to be a check on the governor and the thousands of bureaucrats who work for state government. Our senators and representatives are our eyes, ears and voices in Lansing. If we send them home in April every year, the other branches of our government are left unchecked.
So let’s pass a constitutional amendment that limits the Legislature to 90 or 100 session days each year. Then, legislative leaders can set their calendar as is suitable to the unique circumstances of the time. Debate on issues stays active and legislators can be in Lansing keeping an eye on the bureaucracy. It serves no practical purpose to pick a random number of days in the beginning of a calendar year and then cut off debate on important issues and send them home.
We could even pass additional legislative reforms. Let’s eliminate the often-dangerous lame-duck session that occurs after general election day in even-numbered years. In this scenario every legislator would have to stand and be accountable to the people for every vote they take prior to being re-elected.
There would be no more “Mr. Leader, I can help you with that tough vote after my re-election.” Let’s limit when lawmakers can hold their re-election fundraisers. Let’s prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for a certain period of time after they leave office, and let’s dock lawmakers’ pay for missing committee meetings and session days.
Limiting the Legislature’s session days make sense, but let’s do it in a way that preserves debate and deliberation on proposed policies, that cleans up how Lansing operates, and that enables lawmakers to do the job voters expect.
Bill Wortz is a lobbyist with the firm Public Affairs Associates.