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Term limits bad for Michigan politics

If you want a practical illustration of why term limits are a bad idea, here’s a good one. Yesterday, Senator Debbie Stabenow managed to engineer a deal to save perhaps $100 million in federal blight funds set aside to help Michigan cities tear down ruined buildings.

A few years ago, the federal government established something called the “Hardest Hit Fund,” money set aside during the Great Recession to help cities deal with blight and foreclosure problems. Urban experts will tell you that it is critically important in saving neighborhoods to demolish vacant, crumbling eyesore buildings as soon as possible.

Older Michigan cities, especially Detroit, are filled with such buildings, which often become breeding grounds for crime. Michigan has applied for, used and spent more than $40 million in recent years to demolish well over 3,000 homes.

But Republicans won control of both houses of Congress last fall, and many of them see this as something the federal government shouldn’t be doing. Some have accused cities of wasting this money, and they were all set to zero out the Hardest Hit fund. Instead, they wanted to put the remaining funds toward infrastructure, to help fund a six-year transportation bill Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs to pass by the end of the month.

This would have been devastating to Detroit and other cities efforts to fight blight. There would have been bigger problems, too. Michigan cities have spent millions to tear down such structures and in many cases, are waiting to be reimbursed out of federal funds. Who would pay if the program suddenly ended?

Republicans had the votes to pass it – but Stabenow, who has been in the Senate for nearly 15 years now, knows a parliamentary trick or two. She could have placed a hold on the bill that would have held it up for 10 days. That might have caused a much longer delay, since the House of Representatives is scheduled to go on vacation for all of August.

But something else is going on here, too, personal relationships. McConnell and Stabenow have worked together for years. They may be political opponents, but they know each other. They’ve each been in the majority and the minority. Neither is leaving the Senate anytime soon. They also know it’s entirely possible that Democrats could win back control next year, and that failing to work together now could have long term consequences.

So, they worked out a deal. The blight funds were saved; the transportation bill will speedily pass, and the missing funds will be found somewhere else.

This might not have happened if all the players were inexperienced, term-limited, and knew they wouldn’t be working together for very long. This is one of the unfortunate differences between Washington and the even more dysfunctional world of Lansing.

By the way – I criticized Senator Stabenow two weeks ago for opposing repeal of a County of Origin Labeling law for meat that has threatened us with retaliatory tariffs from Canada.

Now, it appears she may have found a face-saving compromise that would allow, but not require, American farmers to label their meat “Product of the U.S.” Governing, as opposed to politics, is largely about two things: experience and compromise.

Which is what adults do, every day.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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