Column: Part-time Legislature threatens representation

Greg McNeilly

Statewide officials have been clashing over the misguided notion of a “part-time legislature.”

Both Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette have voiced support of this idea. Both are wrong. However, Calley makes it worse by proposing a specific proposal that will bring glee — if adopted — to the bank accounts of lobbyists, consultants and professional politicians alike.

A part-time legislature is a great idea — if you hate a representative republic.

The proposed scheme specifically limits the legislature to three months of consecutive work each year and cuts legislators’ salaries in half. According to its pushers, savings could reach “tens of millions” of dollars, so that would mean slashing legislative staff as well, leaving offices shuttered, phones unanswered, and constituent concerns unheard.

The move would make Michigan the only state in the United States with such restrictive term limits and a part-time legislature. There are a host of good reasons no other state does what supporters have proposed. Attracting talented women and men willing — and able — to serve is near the top of the list.

While term limits have made it more difficult to truly attract the best and brightest, it’s still true that just about anyone can serve in the Michigan legislature and represent the needs and interests of his or her hometown, county and district. That’s because it’s a full-time job with a fair bit of certainty (at least for two years).

Most Michiganians would be hard pressed to find a job or career that offers up three consecutive months of vacation each year. More likely, legislative work would quickly become a more exclusive realm of the independently wealthy, while working-class men and women looking to serve would face a decision over whether or not to give-up long-term employment for a few exciting weeks in Lansing.

Perhaps more troubling, individuals who do find a way to maintain their employment may be confronted with very real and very serious conflicts of interest that challenge their integrity and threaten their livelihood.

Just this month in West Virginia, a state with a part-time legislature, the leader of the state Senate was fired by his employer after casting a vote on a bill his company didn’t like. Conflicts like these would be routine and ordinary, and they’d undoubtedly stretch the conscience of even the most upright part-time legislator.

Another major problem with the proposal is the troubling way it would shift power away from voters and into the hands of unelected bureaucrats, lobbyists, and other Lansing insiders. The fact of the matter is that while the proposal may limit the legislature to 90 consecutive days of action each year, the government will still be up and running — and interfering in our lives — for 365 of them.

Our state and our nation are built on the idea and the structure of a functioning representative democracy; or a Republic (if we can keep it). Moving the legislature to part-time status might limit the amount of time politicians hang out together at the state Capitol, but it also means stripping the people’s elected representatives from the process and leaving control in the hands of well moneyed special interests, their powerful and influential lobbyists, and unelected executive branch bureaucrats.

Under the part-time scheme, only the well-financed will be able to swiftly orchestrate changes to policy with little to no input from the state’s voters, let alone due process and reflection.

What’s worse, these bureaucrats and insiders will never face re-election, and lack any incentive at all to behave, govern, or spend responsibly.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with this part-time proposal is the way it would immediately undermine the state’s system of governmental checks and balances, taking institutional knowledge and sheer manpower out of the legislature and centralizing it with the executive branch and the Governor’s office. Not surprising that the plan was put forth by a presumed candidate for governor.

The scheme is a wholesale power grab by the executive branch, unweighting the originally designed separate but equal and balanced government. Our separation of powers, many argue, is our Constitution’s most salient accomplishment. This wisdom would literally be traded for folly.

Voters who value representative democracy — or a republic — should reject this misguided and dangerous proposal.