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Money and politics: when the fix makes it worse

Jimmy Stewart's character in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" receives a lesson on the role of special interests in politics.
Jimmy Stewart's character in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" receives a lesson on the role of special interests in politics.

Many voters suspect politicians are corrupted by money. Campaign contributions and cozy relationships with lobbyists make voters wonder if their elected officials have their best interests at heart. That’s led to attempts to fix the problem in Michigan, but observers say sometimes the ‘fix’ makes the problem worse.

Politicians need money to run campaigns to win elections. And often that money comes from the rich and powerful. But what do those politicians get in return?

Remember that scene from Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A mover and shaker lets the Jimmy Stewart character, a naïve new Senator, know if he cooperates with a deal the guy’s  got going, he can write his own ticket.

“Now what do you like? Business? If you like business, you can pick any job in the state and go right to the top. Or politics. If you like being a Senator, there’s no reason why you can’t come back to that Senate and stay there as long as you want to. If you’re smart.”

Many voters think money from well-heeled sources corrupts politicians in a similar manner.

 “That leads you to the knee-jerk reaction that they’re all a bunch of corrupt politicians; throw the bums out. Get term limits. Get them out of there. Right,” suggest Rick Hall. He's a political science professor with the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

He says in 1992 Michigan voters took that ‘throw the bums out’ strategy. They approved term limits in an attempt to get better people in office. But, there have been unintended consequences: elected officials with little or no experience. 

“You know, it takes you two terms just to figure out what in the hell is going on, to develop any expertise, to learn what the statutes are, to learn who’s interested in what and so on and so forth. And about the time you basically develop any expertise and your staff does, you’re out.”

Out after only six years in the House or eight years in the Senate. That’s not a lot of time to not only understand but run the complicated business of the state.

But there are those who offer to help. Lobbyists.  They’ve been around. They understand many of the state’s policies better than the new legislators. They hold the institutional knowledge, the history of government policy. So, those inexperienced lawmakers are often grateful for the lobbyists’ help.

Bill Ballenger is a former legislator and the editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. He says once a lobbyist helps a legislator through one tough issue, trust is built and those new legislators call on them again.

"And they can become very influential on a group of legislators who, let’s face it, can have no more than three two-year terms in the House experience or two four-year terms of experience in the Senate under term limits.”

And, the lobbyists can also help with raising money. Dependence grows.

Joe Schwarz is a former Member of Congress and a former state legislator. He says term limits have left legislators dependent on outside interests, special interests, to guide them instead seasoned legislators who could keep them on the right path.

“They have no mentors. In my day, three years of service in the legislature, you’d still be looking for the men’s room or the ladies’ room.”

So, are we worse off since term limits started taking effect?

“A lot of people would like to say so.”

Again, Bill Ballenger with Inside Michigan Politics. He says a lot of people think the process of legislating in Lansing looks uglier and messier than it’s ever looked. But, Ballenger says it really all comes down to this question:

”What are the laws like; how to they read; are they good; are they bad? No matter how they’re made, the laws, how long it takes, how ugly the process looks, the bottom line is: is the public policy good or bad? And frankly, there’s not that much evidence that the performance of the legislature and the legislation that they produced in the last 20 years since term limits began to take hold is a lot worse than it was before that.”

So, term limits changed some things, but it’s not clear that it has accomplished anything at all when it comes to concerns about money and politics.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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