Leadership in the Michigan state legislature is bought and sold

Through campaign finance instruments called “leadership committees,” lawmakers in Lansing are buying their positions in the legislature — and selling their political sovereignty in the process.
A confluence of loose political money, Michigan‘s opaque campaign finance laws, tight term limits, and an uninterested public have turned the fight to head the State House and Senate into a question of money, rather than political acumen or legislative skill. While that turns the process of lawmaking into something smaller and dirtier than it might otherwise be, the real issue is where the money comes from and how its sources are corrupting your state’s politics.

Money, money everywhere
In the waning days of the Roman Republic, before its political institutions crumbled and gave way to dictatorship and empire, elections became a matter of money. Making it as a quaestor, the lowest level of elected office, took a small fortune in well-placed bribes, propaganda, and gifts to the mass of the people. Securing a consulship, one of the two top posts in the Roman Senate, required an astronomical sum. Candidates for office who didn’t have the money themselves had to make allies, like the ones Julius Caesar found in Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus.

It bothered contemporary Romans that their elections, which should have been (whether or not they really ever were) contests of pure rhetoric and merit, had become crass contests of expense. But what should have worried them, as it should worry us, was that all that borrowing candidates did on the campaign trail, all those loans and gifts they’d taken to finance their run — all of it created inevitable obligations to those benefactors once the man had reached the office.

Have you ever wondered exactly how lawmakers in Lansing pick their leaders — Senate Minority and Majority, Speaker of the House, and House Minority — out from among themselves? In Washington, though there’s some question of merit involved, the main issue, especially for committee chairs and even for the big ones at the head of the caucuses, is seniority, or time served for the party.

But in Lansing, since we passed term limits in 1992, state representatives can serve three two-year terms and state senators can serve two four-year ones — restrictions that result in massive, regular turnover. So Michigan lawmakers have to find some other way of choosing the people who run the chambers.

Unsurprisingly in a post Citizens United world, what it seems as though they’ve settled on is money. There are two more-or-less traditional ways that politicians have raised funds in Michigan. The first is through candidate committees. These are the typical “Committee to Elect So-and-So” that you’d donate to if you supported So-and-So. Contributions are capped at $1,000 per person per year and $10,000 per other political action committee per year for the House. Those limits are doubled for the Senate, and all contributions are disclosed. Corporations can’t give to these committees. (Although that rule is not as solid as it seems. Trade associations, like the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, have their own PACs, which in turn donate to candidate committees).

The second traditional fundraising method is through caucus committees. There are four of these: Democratic House and Senate, and Republican House and Senate. They raise money on behalf of their respective legislative caucuses; corporations can’t give, and the limits for individual contributions are high, $40,000 per person per year.

And then there are two relatively new structures at work in Michigan. The first of these are super PACs, which got famous in the wake of the Citizens United decision. These can take unlimited donations from citizens and corporations. They are supposed to disclose their contribution, but as the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the MCFN, says, that money “can be difficult to track.” Super PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign, but pretty much nobody’s ever followed that rule.

The second of these novel setups, and the one that’s most interesting here in Michigan, is leadership political action committees. These PACs can take unlimited contributions from citizens, although corporations can’t give (unless it’s through their own PACs). Leadership PACs can then contribute to candidate and caucus committees, within the limits for each of those. It’s not the structure of these that’s intriguing so much as how many of them there are and what they’re being used to do.

As the MCFN reports, “in the 1990s and early 2000s, only a select number of lawmakers had leadership PACs.” But now 62 percent of all new state lawmakers form a committee when they come into office, and some of them form several. Because the committees don’t use the candidate’s name and are usually titled with some bland patriotic pablum like “Liberty Fund” or “Michigan Strategic Leadership Fund,” it can be tough to figure out what belongs to who, especially with the incredibly bad tools provided by the Secretary of State.

What does become clear, as the names of one or another or several leadership funds turn up in the campaign finance disclosures of huge numbers of legislators, is that lawmakers are buying their way into leadership by funding their colleagues’ campaigns. Cross fundraising and donations from one campaign to another have always been part of the political landscape, state and national, but the scale of it in Michigan is enormous and growing. Leadership PACs raised $1.9 million in 2017, a non-election year, and that’s big money for in-state campaigns.

What’s more, MCFN reached out to the treasures of several leadership committees, and one of them admitted straight out what the story was:

Rep. Yousef Rabhi, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, whose Liberty and Justice for All PAC formed on April 28, 2017…said the sentiment in Lansing is that people who are interested in running for leadership positions need to start leadership PACs. The implied reality is that if someone wants to run for leadership, the person needs money, he said.

But that’s not even the real problem
All of this spending may feel a little gross, but it obscures what should be the frightening thing about leadership PACs, which is the even more outsized influence that it turns over to big donors. Donations to leadership PACs are unlimited, which means individuals (like, say, members of the DeVos family) and corporate associations (like the Beer and Wine Wholesalers, who are top donors for two-thirds of Michigan’s legislators) can give potential leaders attention-grabbing amounts of money.

What’s more, Michigan’s tight term limits come into play yet again. In other legislatures, like the national House and Senate, lawmakers make up for the fact that they’re not policy experts in the vast majority of areas that they govern by hiring expert staffers and accruing experience over their years in office. In Lansing, staffs are tiny and lawmakers barely stay in office long enough to master parliamentary procedure, let alone the intricacies of the various policy areas that they end up legislating.

What does that mean? Lawmakers with a vague idea of what they want to do often enough look to lobbyists to provide the actual text of the bill that they’ll sponsor. Sometimes, as reported elsewhere by the MCFN, lobbyists don’t wait for the legislator to make the first move. They show up with a bill their corporate backers want passed and they go hunting for lawmakers to sponsor it. Of the six Republicans and six Democrats that the MCFN talked to late last year, half of them had sponsored bills this way.

In our state legislature, we have lawmakers taking huge amounts of difficult-to-track money from wealthy citizens and (through trade associations) corporate and industrial interests. Those lawmakers use that money to get themselves elected to leadership positions which totally control the flow of legislation in the capitol. Which means that the most powerful, most influential members of the State House and Senate are also those members who are most open and beholden to their donors.

Is it any wonder, then, that the legislature in Lansing is a wonderland for special interest groups? Or that wealthy families like the DeVoses manage to get their pet laws passed there when they fail over and over again as public referenda? Or that lawmakers don’t seem willing to fix the legislature’s obvious problems of staffing, or term limits, even though they’d be helping themselves?

Michigan voters’ well-intentioned attempt to create a body of citizen-legislators have combined with the state’s particularly broken campaign finance system to create a perfect storm of monied influence in the capital. Given that lawmakers and their backers are pretty happy with the situation, it seems unlikely that anything short of a constitutional convention like that of 1961 will be able to rectify things.

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