Philip Blumel: The lobbyists are taking term limits to court in Michigan.
Philip Blumel: Hi, I’m Philip Blumel. Welcome to No Uncertain Terms, the official podcast of the term limits movement for the week of December 2nd, 2019.
Philip Blumel: In a recent episode we reported on the challenge to Michigan’s popular term limits law launched by the top politicians of both legislative houses in that state. Now, the second prong of their attack has been revealed. A group of professional lobbyists have filed suit against the constitutional provision claiming that the law is unconstitutional. US Term Limits executive director, Nick Tomboulides is with me with more detail and commentary.
Philip Blumel: Hey Nick.
Nick Tomboulides: Hello.
Philip Blumel: I want to set the stage for our discussion about this by reading the words of Patrick J. Anderson, he’s the CEO of the Anderson Economic Group and he wrote this in last week’s Detroit News. He said, “This past week a group of former legislators, all of whom now are just lobbyists, gathered in another lobbyist’s office flanked by attorneys they had hired with funds from a source they refuse to disclose. They announced they were filing a lawsuit against the state of Michigan and its constitution. These legislators/lobbyists, all of whom swore an oath to defend the Michigan constitution, are now asking a federal judge to set it aside. The rationale is that Michigan’s term limits amendment somehow infringes upon their rights as American citizens because it prevents them from running again for an office they have previously held for multiple terms.”
Philip Blumel: What do you think of that?
Nick Tomboulides: I love this Patrick Anderson guy. What a great human being he is. First line of the Michigan constitution says, all political power is inherent in the people, which means this is absolutely a betrayal of their oaths. It’s like, if you can’t beat them, sue them. Eight former state legislators, all of whom face term limits, I assume, filed this suit in federal court alleging that their term limits, which were passed by 60% of the Michigan voters, are unconstitutional. First of all, my question would be how dumb do these legislators/lobbyists think we are, because I don’t know how you could see this is anything other than an end-run around the voters. These are sad-sacks, they know they wouldn’t have a chance at the ballot box. It’s so undemocratic. They are telling voters basically, your thoughts don’t matter, your beliefs don’t matter. We, the political we, knows best for you and we are going to a court so that a judge can overrule these term limits that you voted for.
Philip Blumel: Right. Not just voted for, remember, they had to collect 400,000 signatures of voters to even put it on the ballot. This was a citizens’ initiative. The people did this and then the people overwhelmingly voted for this and now these guys are saying that, contrary to what you just quoted from the Michigan constitution, that well, what the people say, don’t matter. My rights are being violated because I can’t run for this office. As if it’s about them.
Nick Tomboulides: So now what’s going to happen is the taxpayer money is going to be wasted, the State of Michigan’s time will be wasted to fight this frivolous lawsuit in federal court, all basically because these grown men are acting like spoiled children. They can’t accept the end of their political careers so they are throwing a little hissy fit about it. That’s what really bothers me.
Philip Blumel: I’d go further than that because I don’t think they really expect this to work. Like you said, it’s frivolous. I mean, how can it be unconstitutional when it is a part of the constitution? Generally when you say unconstitutional, you’re talking a law or something that has been passed that contradicts something in the constitution, but is explicitly part of the Michigan constitution.
Nick Tomboulides: They are making a really radical argument. They’re not just trying to strike down the Michigan term limits. If the court ruled in their favor, it would strike down every term limit, everywhere in America. 36 governors, 15 state legislatures, nine of the ten largest cities in America, hundreds of counties and cities and other offices, they would all go down, because the radical, insane, crazy kookie argument in this lawsuit is that all term limits violate the US Constitution. Which is, like you mentioned, so crazy because term limits are in the Constitution, term limits were around when the Constitution was written. Term limits were in the first Constitution and so when the state of Michigan was created, it was created by a term limited Congress.
Nick Tomboulides: Ben Franklin wrote term limits into the Constitution of Pennsylvania in 1776 before the Constitution was written. If Ben Franklin were alive today, he’d be out flying his kite in a thunderstorm and some Michigan legislator would walk up to him and serve him with a lawsuit. The argument is crazy.
Philip Blumel: This sounds just like the rationale that Evo Morales used in Bolivia, who was just thrown out of his office after violent protests in the streets because he tried to run for his fourth term when he had term limits, went to the court, made the same argument, got his cronies to overturn the law passed by the people, by the way, also in Bolivia. And when he went and tried to falsify this election, there was violence in the streets and he had to step down. This is the same argument, the same argument that Evo Morales made. He was successful in a crooked Bolivian court, but I do not think that you’d be successful in American courts.
Nick Tomboulides: When I first saw this, I said to myself, I’ve seen this before, but I’ve not seen it in America. This is, like you say, it’s usually something third world dictators do to try to keep power. And you said something about politicians rights. I don’t think politicians have special rights beyond the rights that we all have as citizens. In fact, I think we have rights in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, to protect us from politicians. So it’s the very opposite. Rights are supposed to protect the people from politicians, not protect politicians from the people.
Philip Blumel: Right. I mean, I could claim that I have the right as a voter to vote in August instead of November, for instance. It’s totally invented and it would be a carve-out just for myself, as if I’m more important than everybody else. And that’s not the case, we’re all equal, we should be treated equal under the law.
Philip Blumel: In November, the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia held a forum titled, What’s Next for American Democracy. The program began with Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig, author of the new book, They Don’t Represent Us, Reclaiming our Democracy. In his book and in his remarks at the NCC, Lessig charted the way in which the Congress and other institutions of our democratic republic respond to narrow interests rather than to the needs and wishes of our nation’s citizenry. This excerpt, Lessig talks about a potential Article V Convention.
Larry Lessig: I’m somebody who believes that we’ve got to amend our Constitution. And I’m realistic enough to know our Congress is not going to propose those amendments. I’m all for those people on my side running out, trying to get people to sign up for petitions to get Congress to propose an amendment to overturn Citizens United. There’s precisely zero chance in my view that the United States Senate is going to, by a two thirds majority propose an amendment to overturn Citizens United. It’s just not going to happen. I mean, maybe they should, maybe they shouldn’t. It’s just not going to happen.
Larry Lessig: The framers actually gave us a way around Congress, that’s the Article V Convention. Indeed, when the amendment provision was proposed, it originally didn’t include anything other than Congress proposing an amendment and George Mason, just before the end of the Convention stood up and said, “Wait a minute, what if Congress is the problem?” It was a kind of duh moment. Yeah, of course, we need a way to amend the Constitution if Congress is the problem and that’s who the problem is. It is Congress. We have a failed branch in our government. The President is the president and the courts are extraordinary compared to what the framers thought. The branch that has failed is Congress so we have to find a way to fix Congress. The only way they’ve given us is an Article V Convention and I think we should try to use it for that purpose.
Philip Blumel: Okay Nick, we have some other interesting term limits news this week. Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida is facing a House ethics probe for engaging in a relationship with a subordinate staff member, paying this girlfriend the highest salary amongst his staffers for almost eight years and she’s been on the payroll for 25. Now, you know Alcee Hastings, I know Alcee Hastings. He has a long record of both opposition to term limits and of corruption, corruption way worse than sticking your girlfriend on the payroll and paying her a lot of money. This guy is a disgraced former federal judge who was impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate for extorting bribes over a case that was in front of him as a federal judge, a bipartisan US Senate threw him out of office, took away his pension and said that he was an extortionist and he runs for Congress later and what happens … He wins and wins and wins and wins.
Nick Tomboulides: Yeah, we’re having a debate right now in this country on impeachment and we’re seeing exactly how hard it is to get somebody impeached. You need overwhelming evidence of corruption and it’s only happened very seldomly in our history. I think five times for judges, very infrequent. But with Alcee Hastings, I guess the evidence was just so overwhelming that he was taking bribes that the House and Senate voted for this overwhelming.
Philip Blumel: Two thirds of the Senate have to vote for conviction.
Nick Tomboulides: Yeah. Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the most corrupt of them all? It might be Alcee Hastings.
Philip Blumel: It definitely could be.
Nick Tomboulides: Florida Man Alcee Hastings, $168,000 maximum salary for his girlfriend. Eight years taking in that maximum salary as a deputy district director, which is kind of like, you don’t really do that much. You have to live in the district, so you don’t have to live in DC. You get to live it up. Once in a while you might have to make a phone call to a constituent or something, but it’s not a very important job within a Congressional office. Alcee Hastings, if he got paid based on how he performs in Congress, he would owe us $50 billion. He has found a clever way here to basically double his salary as a Congressman, hire his girlfriend, pay her the same amount. But what’s funny is, he’s always rated one of the least wealthy members of Congress. So despite being as crooked as a $3 bill, he’s still not smart enough to build a little financial empire like the other Congressmen have.
Nick Tomboulides: It really illustrates too, I think, the gap between a guy like him and his average constituents, how out of touch he’s become because the average household income in his district is about $42,000. He’s making, I would never use the term earning, he’s making 800% of what his constituents are making on average.
Philip Blumel: And he complains there’s not enough. In 2015, there was a guy that ran against him, Jay Bonner, he’s a professional land surveyor down here in south Florida, he ran against him and actually part of his campaign against him was about term limits, by the way, because Bonner was a Term Limits pledger, a signer, and of course, Hastings is very much opposed to the idea. He really took [inaudible 00:11:11] to task for the fact that Hastings was complaining in 2015 that $174,000, which is how much a congressman earned at that time, was not enough to live in Washington, DC. Even with his girlfriend’s match of about $168,000 extra, that presumably they are spending together, and he can’t make ends meet in Washington, DC while his constituents are living on 42 grand a year.
Nick Tomboulides: He was ranked number one out of 435 members of the House for paying salaries and fees to family members according to the group, Judicial Watch. In June 2011, another one of his staff members, not the long-time girlfriend, but another staff member filed a lawsuit alleging he had made unwanted sexual advances and threatened her job when she refused him. So, Alcee Hastings is basically running a bordello out of his congressional office.
Philip Blumel: I guess so.
Nick Tomboulides: A panel looked into that and then the Treasury Department just mysteriously paid $220,000 to settle the lawsuit. I think that might have been part of the slush fund that was uncovered last year.
Philip Blumel: Oh, no doubt.
Nick Tomboulides: So folks, if you’re not convinced by now that we need term limits, I’m not sure what else we can say or do for you. Just Google Alcee Hastings.
Philip Blumel: Right.
Philip Blumel: Following Larry Lessig at the National Constitution Center forum, US Term Limits chairman, Howie Rich, made his case for term limits and specifically the use of an Article V Convention to achieve them.
Speaker 4: Howie Rich, you are the leader of the leading organization arguing for term limits reform. You argued an important case before the Supreme Court and you are in favor of an Article V Convention to achieve term limits. Tell us why and how you would ensure that the convention would focus on term limits and not on other issues that you might not favor.
Howie Rich: Initially what we did in our strategy in term limits is we had a strategy in which voters could vote for a term limits amendment to their own state constitution. We got 23 states to do it. Tough campaigns, all the rest of it and a US Supreme Court case. Our case, US Term Limits versus Thornton, we lost that case five to four in the US Supreme Court in 1995. Our new strategy is utilizing Article V, the second method for a convention and term limits, in my view, will be very helpful in terms of the democratic process. We have term limits on 15 state legislatures and what we’ve seen is more women, competitive elections, money is more equalized. And Ballotpedia did a study on how many competitive elections were there in 2016. There were 435 House seats, 23 were competitive. That means 6% of seats were competitive, incumbent wins all the rest of them. Come 2018, where we had a wave election, 82 seats were considered competitive by Ballotpedia. 20%, what about the others?
Howie Rich: In 40 districts, nobody challenges the incumbent. So what you get is a political class and a seniority system. We’re utilizing this Article V round, the second method that George Mason suggested, and the main reason that I favor term limits, and the term limit I favor is a real term limit, three House terms, six years and two Senate terms. It’s what we call adverse pre-selection. There are a lot of people in this room who I think would qualify for Congress. And if you think about it and say, “Oh, somebody asked me to run for Congress”, great. Let me take a look at it. The reelection rate in the US House of Representatives is 95%. So if you are foolish enough to run for Congress against an incumbent, not much of a change, but in this particular district, we have a chance because the incumbent was indicted, or it was an open seat. He left, he retired, for whatever reason. Great, I think I’ll run, but you think about it some more.
Howie Rich: Now suppose I’m a doctor, I’m an accountant, I’m an engineer or a business person, I’m an educator. If I win, I run, I win, I go through all the scrutiny and how I win. How does it work? Well, there’s a seniority system. It’s a top-down system. I’m a successful engineer, or whatever I am in life, I’m going to be subservient to seniority. The average committee chair has been in Congress for 23 years. So if I’m going to run, I’m not saying me, but a successful person in life wants to run, why would I run? I’m going to be subservient. It’s going to take me a decade or two decades to get anything accomplished. Why would I do that? We call this adverse pre-selection because the best people, on average, don’t run.
Howie Rich: But then there’s this idea of term limits on Congress. And if you had three House terms, the seniority system is out the window, it’s now based on merit. You’re going to attract more people, you’re going to have competitive elections, money will be equalized. It’s something like incumbent raises and spends a million and a half, the challenger, $250,000 so it’s a six to one advantage to the incumbent. And of course the incumbent has all the name [inaudible 00:17:22] to start with. Special interest PACs, $9 to $1. It’s a rigged system, but in open seats where you don’t have this disparity between the challenger and incumbent, the average is $600,000.
Howie Rich: What term limits does, real term limits, it equalizes the system and the Article V approach, to me, I agree with Larry, it’s the only way to do it. You’re going to get two thirds of both houses of Congress to term limit themselves without enormous pressure? Give me a break.
Philip Blumel: Let’s talk about how term limits would help solve this kind of problem. Look at his district, Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida, impeached and convicted 1989. He ran for Congress in 1994. In 1994 until now he was in the US Congress. Now here’s somebody who was impeached and convicted of trying to extort $150,000. He ran unopposed over this time in five races and he when he did face opposition, he won with numbers like 80%, 87.9%, 81.6%. The lowest amount that he won by was 73.5% in 1996 as a sophomore in Congress. So talk about a broken system. There is no one in this district that feels like it’s worth their time and energy to try to win this seat against an incumbent who has been convicted of extortion, who is clearly corrupt and now faces a House probe for paying his long-time girlfriend the maximum staff salary amount. This is an indictment of the current system like nothing else.
Nick Tomboulides: Yeah, he won his 2018 general election with 99.9% of the vote.
Philip Blumel: So is that opposed or not opposed, by the way?
Nick Tomboulides: Well, it was unopposed, but kudos to the 165 within the district who wrote in for somebody else.
Philip Blumel: Yeah.
Nick Tomboulides: The one tenth of one percent of voters in Alcee Hastings’ district voted for somebody else. You’re right. At some point, you’ve got all the name recognition, you’ve Congressional clout, you’ve got the seniority, and you’re bringing home the bacon, not to mention the well-oiled political machines that an incumbent can develop at the local level. And they just become impossible to dislodge. And we’re not even talking about getting a Republican in there. A republican is never going to win this district, it’s a deep blue Broward County. But when you have a term limit, you get some intra-party competition. You get new democrats rising up who obviously have a shot to challenge this guy and hopefully you would get someone a lot less corrupt. Let’s face it, the bar for that is very low. At this point, I think any warm body from Broward County would be less corrupt than Alcee Hastings. Let’s make it happen. Let’s get the open seat, let’s get the competition.
Philip Blumel: It’s a very practical matter. If there were term limits in the US Congress, and his term limit was up, there would be an open seat election and several people, movers and shakers from the district would run for the seat. There is no question about it, term limits work.
Nick Tomboulides: Here’s the deal. If we had term limits on congressional girlfriends who are also staffers, Alcee Hastings’ mistress would have had to leave office five years ago.
Philip Blumel: That’s right.
Nick Tomboulides: God, he’s such a crook.
Philip Blumel: Thanks for joining us for another episode of No Uncertain Terms. We cannot let the politicians, not voters coalition succeed in overturning the citizens will in Michigan. If you live in Michigan, please go to the Save Michigan’s Term Limits action page at TermLimits.com/Michigan and send a message to your legislators right now. Tell them to keep their hands off Michigan’s term limits. Also, please forward this link to other Michiganders you know. You can also find the Michigan action page under the current actions tab at TermLimits.com. We have to get ahead of this, thanks for your help. We’ll be back next week.
Stacey Selleck: The revolution isn’t being televised. Fortunately, you have No Uncertain Terms podcast.
Speaker 7: USTL.