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Representatives voting from home districts would fragment us further

Jun 7, 2017

You might say the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the one think tank liberals and progressives most like to hate. Indeed, I heard someone say a few years ago that it was home to some of the finest minds of the 14th century. That’s not completely fair.

They produced a useful report this spring detailing how some of our complex and unnecessary state and local licensing laws are hurting the economy.

Of course, the Mackinac Center largely believes that any taxes or restraints on business are bad. While I usually disagree with them, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with vigorous policy debate. We should all recognize that there are useful ideas and bad ones at both ends of whatever the ideological spectrum is these days.

But there are also harebrained schemes, and the President of the Mackinac Center, a former Dow Chemical engineer named Joseph Lehman, is floating one.

Lehman thinks it would be a good idea to allow state legislators to cast votes on bills from their home districts, rather than going to the Capitol to debate and discuss the issues. His rationale is that this would enable the lawmakers to spend more time in their home districts, where they wouldn’t be as subject to the influence of lobbyists.

Well, reducing the influence of special interests on legislation is a great idea. Unfortunately, Lehman seems to have forgotten that this really isn’t the 14th century.

Lobbyists can reach out and touch you wherever you are, using some of the same technology that lawmakers would use if they were to, as State Senator Curtis Hertel elegantly put it, “vote in their underwear from their living rooms.”

But what would be lost would be representative democracy the way the founding fathers conceived of it. The way this is supposed to work is that our representatives come together in Lansing and Washington, and debate, discuss and hammer out legislation.

Ideally, everyone listens to everyone else. Urban lawmakers learn from rural ones and vice-versa, everybody has their perspectives broadened, and we get fair and sensible laws.

This model still exists, though it has been damaged by the effects of extreme gerrymandering and radical term limits. But what Lehman is proposing would destroy it.

What’s the point of having state representatives if they don’t have to mingle and work with other representatives from other parts of the state?

I’ve been to Copper Harbor and I work in Detroit, and I can tell you that they pretty much have nothing in common, except this: They are both part of Michigan. The good news is that absolutely nobody other than Joe Lehman seems to think this makes sense. The Port Huron Times Herald called it “an evil idea.”

State Representative Scott Dianda, a proud Yooper who lives 300 miles from Lansing, said he didn’t have any problem showing up for work, and added that in any event, Skype and the internet weren’t always reliable where he lives.

But this is also a symptom of a deeper problem. We seem sometimes in danger of losing any sense of community, with online classes replacing classrooms and staring at your phone has become a substitute for conversation. Human interaction seems to be an endangered species – and something you’d think any true conservative would want to preserve.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.