Michigan legislators propose amendment to end lame duck sessions

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 4:58pm

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, was a co-sponsor of the new resolution,

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, was a co-sponsor of the new resolution, Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Following the swearing in of 48 new members of the Michigan Legislature last month, a bipartisan coalition of representatives has proposed a constitutional amendment to end the state’s controversial lame duck session.

In state legislatures, the lame duck session is a period between the election of new representatives and their swearing in procedures, during which outgoing politicians are able to craft legislation relatively easily, without the fear of public scrutiny. Michigan remains one of only a handful of states in which this session still exists.

According to state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who was a co-sponsor of the resolution, Michigan’s strict six-year term limits also makes the state particularly susceptible to facing faulty legislation during the lame duck period.

“You need experienced people around, but when you have a lame duck situation like this, (term limits) amplify the problem even more,” Rabhi said. “You have people who have only served for one or two terms that are already running for state Senate. There’s huge turnover. You’ll have a lame duck cycle where almost half the house is not going to be accountable to the positions they’ve been elected to.”

During the most recent lame duck session, Republicans in control of Michigan’s House of Representatives rejected a minimum wage raise and increased the difficulty of putting statewide initiatives on the ballot, complicating planned legislation for Democrats assuming office.

The House’s newly proposed resolution, House Joint Resolution C, would amend section 13, article IV of the Michigan Constitution, calling for the state legislature to adjourn before Election Day and resume work once new representatives have assumed office. Currently, Michigan has a full-time legislature, meaning representatives do not adjourn, even during transitions of power.

In light of this problem, Rabhi explains, Democrats and Republicans have begun to come to a consensus on the issue of lame duck sessions. According to Rabhi, HJR-C has sponsors and supporters from both sides of the aisle.

“It’s 100-percent bipartisan,” Rabhi said. “I think the co-sponsorship was 50-50 Dems and Republicans. It’s one of those issues that a lot of us agree on, and it’s just a matter of making sure the house leadership on the Republican side sees this as a priority as well.”

Public Policy junior Katie Kelly, communications director for the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, stressed Michigan’s lame duck session has long been an outlet for lobbyists and interest groups to exert disproportionate influence on legislation.

“We saw from this last year how dangerous lame duck sessions can be,” Kelly said. “The legislature this time around tried to end citizen-led ballot initiatives as well as undermine the authority of an incoming governor. I think, and the College Dems think, that passing the lame duck legislation will help the state be more transparent in its legislature and help ease the passage of incoming leaders.”

Many on the other side of the aisle, including University’s chapter of College Republicans, echo this sentiment, emphasizing the harm lame duck sessions can assert on the democratic process.

LSA senior Dylan Berger, president of the College Republicans and a columnist for The Daily, said in an email interview the push to eliminate lame duck sessions signifies a step in the right direction for Michigan.

“Lame duck sessions allow for legislation to be passed with unsavory amounts of influence from special interests and without proper debate of the issues,” Berger said. “Michiganders deserve better from their representatives. Doing away with lame duck sessions here in Michigan would be a victory for good government.”

While a number of Republicans and Democrats appear to align on this issue, in order for the constitutional amendment to be passed, the resolution would have to be approved by the state legislature, placed on the ballot and be approved by the voters during the next state election in November 2020.

Despite the outward agreement on HJR-C, Rusty Hills, a professor at the Ford School of Public Policy and campaign manager for former Attorney General Bill Schuette, contends getting the resolution through the state legislature could be a complicated task to achieve.

“It’s just unusual for anyone in public office to give up their powers, whether it’s the executive branch, the judicial branch or the legislative branch,” Hills said. “I think this is going to be a really tough road to hoe. If it did pass and get on the ballot, it would get widespread popular support, but I’m not so sure it’s going to get through the legislature.”

Despite the public’s strong appetite for reform, according to Hills, a large percentage of representatives would be unlikely to sacrifice the session’s existence. Because the lame duck period is one in which legislation can be advanced en masse, the amendment would reshape the manner and periods in which representatives’ most valued bills can be approved.

“Lame duck is a time to get a lot of things done,” Hills said. “When I worked for Governor (John) Engler, it was a very productive time. We were able to get a lot of legislation passed — quite a lot of it bipartisan, in fact. The fact that some legislators were heading out the door did give us the opportunity to pick up some votes, particularly on long, festering issues that had defied resolution.”

Despite the possibility of opposition ahead, Rabhi, as well as the 13 Republican and 11 other Democratic co-sponsors of the resolution, remain confident HJR-C is a necessary measure for the people of Michigan.

“It’s something that comes up at all the coffee hours and constituent events that I have,” Rabhi said. “This is one of those issues that keeps on resurfacing. People don’t like lame duck; it’s not popular with the voters and I agree with them. It’s not really acceptable to have this period of time where accountability is at rock bottom.”