Build trust in government

Joseph Lehman
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Declining trust in government produces attempts to transform and restructure it. One new idea could reverse the erosion of confidence. We should amend the state constitution to permit lawmakers to cast legislative votes from their home districts, not just from inside the Capitol.

Citizens hungry for change keep trying to shake things up. Voters approved legislative term limits in 1992 but that did not produce higher regard for government. A sweeping constitutional rewrite in 2008 called Reform Michigan Government Now fizzled after it was exposed as a partisan ploy. A campaign announced in May to convert Michigan to a part-time legislature is off to a slow start. These ideas may be bold but none has attracted a critical mass of support.

Donald Trump was elected amid a promise to “drain the swamp,” which voters took to mean he would break up cozy cabals of lawmakers, bureaucrats and lobbyists in Washington who aren’t putting the people first. Many voters suspect that a tightly knit and dimly lit culture among the governing class is more effective at keeping itself happy than it is at representing regular people.

The same sentiment rings familiar at the state level, but on a smaller scale.

Allowing lawmakers to vote from their home districts could restore trust in government. House and Senate rules, not law, require legislators to vote in the Capitol just like in horse-and-buggy days.

Requiring legislators to be in Lansing to vote on thousands of bills, amendments, and procedures every session means they must spend a great deal of time far from the people they represent. It also means they spend a lot of time close to people paid full-time to twist arms.

There is a reason every major interest group in the state has a permanent building in Lansing and it’s usually not to represent the broader interests of the people. A Lansing lobbying guide devotes 289 pages to the names and photos of local, professional lobbyists.

Three things would happen immediately if lawmakers could vote from their districts. First, every campaign would likely include promises to spend more time in the district. Challengers would promise to split their time between Lansing and the district more wisely than the incumbent, and the incumbent would argue he or she already has the right mix.

Second, the relationships between lawmakers and constituents would change. More direct contact with the people leads to more opportunities to hear them out, explain past votes, and describe future plans.

Lastly, the dynamic between lawmakers and lobbyists would change. It’s convenient for lobbyists that the lawmakers come to them. Lobbyists would prioritize things differently if they had to visit lawmakers on their home turf surrounded by their own voters.

No lawmaker would have to cast a single vote from the district. Legislators could still spend as much time in Lansing as they wished — to work with other lawmakers or officials, attend hearings and briefings, or consult lobbyists and experts. Lansing news media would report on who votes the most from the Capitol while local media would have far more access to lawmakers. The Open Meetings Act and legislative rules would be amended to comport with the constitutional change that would make in-district voting hard to undo. Communications technology would be updated and secured to ensure integrity.

Allowing legislators to cast votes from the home district is not guaranteed to restore trust in government. But it is the only proposal that creates a strong incentive for lawmakers to spend more time with those they are pledged to represent and less time near the concentrated power of lobbyists and interest groups.

Joseph Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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