Dr. Wolfram | Collegian

I had the oppor­tunity to learn directly how leg­is­lation is made when a former student of mine con­tacted me in 1983 about taking a leave from my position at the Uni­versity of Michigan-Dearborn to become the econ­omist for the Michigan Senate Repub­licans.  Of course, I had heard the old quote from Otto von Bis­marck, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made,” and as I was teaching Public Choice (which I teach here now), a course using eco­nomic theory to examine the political process, I was intrigued. 

John Engler was the minority leader in the Senate and was forming a policy team that would be made up of experts in dif­ferent fields rather than by political oper­a­tives.  I went to Lansing and inter­viewed with Sen. Engler and was impressed with the idea that leg­is­lation would be put forth and ana­lyzed by people who were able to examine the unin­tended con­se­quences of leg­is­lation as well as the intended ones.  For my Eco­nomics 105 stu­dents, it was a chance to follow the advice of Bastiat and Mises and examine the seen and the unforeseen.

So, starting in Feb­ruary on the days I was not teaching, and beginning full-time once school was over, I became the econ­omist for the Senate Repub­lican Policy staff. This entailed pro­viding analysis for the sen­ators of bills, and even­tually I was relied upon to draft leg­is­lation.  My main job was to work with the Senate Finance Com­mittee and advise the sen­ators on leg­is­lation before the committee.

At the time the Democrats con­trolled the House, Senate, and gov­er­norship, so we did not have much influence on what bills actually passed. But less than a year after I arrived, there was a recall election in which two Demo­c­ratic sen­ators were recalled and replaced by Repub­licans.  This meant Repub­licans became the majority and took over chair­manship of all the com­mittees as well as making up the majority of all com­mittees. Until going to Lansing, I was not aware of the fact that if a party gains a majority in the House or Senate, it con­trols all the legislation.

For the next nearly six years I was able to use my expertise in the courses I had been teaching, public finance and public choice, and, in par­ticular the Aus­trian school analysis of how markets work, to advise both the Repub­licans and the Democrats on leg­is­lation.  Sen. Engler was an excellent leader in that he had a phi­losophy of limited gov­ernment and an under­standing of how markets work, and sur­rounded himself with advisors with similar phi­losophy and relied upon their expertise to form policy.

Sen. (later Gov­ernor) Engler sep­a­rated the policy staff from the political staff.  This created a sep­a­ration between those who were in Lansing to ensure that the sen­ators got reelected and those who were forming a policy con­sistent with a phi­losophy of limited gov­ernment and reliance on markets.  Gen­erally these things were not in con­flict, but occa­sionally they were. 

One of these times that has stuck with me for decades was when a bill was before the leg­is­lature that would have ben­e­fited one group that gen­erally sup­ported Repub­licans over another group.  I found that the bill would put gov­ernment into a position of what Bastiat would have called legalized plunder (for my Eco­nomics 105 stu­dents) and argued against the leg­is­lation in a closed door caucus of the sen­ators.  One of the sen­ators pointed out that we would be going against a group that gen­erally sup­ported Repub­licans and that there was a special election coming up. Sen. Dick Posthumous (later to become Lieu­tenant Gov­ernor) stood up and said the sen­ators should vote the way that was best for Michigan and he would per­sonally raise the money if needed to make up for any loss of con­tri­bu­tions from the special interest group.  That expe­rience was grat­i­fying in that it showed that leg­is­lation would not be dom­i­nated by whoever did the most to elect the senators.

I found that advising on policy and tes­ti­fying to com­mittees was a lot like teaching a class.  If you made the argument clear enough that the sen­ators would be com­fortable explaining it to their con­stituents, then your position would prevail.  I make this point to my stu­dents. One day they may be an elected rep­re­sen­tative them­selves, or staff to elected offi­cials, and will be able to affect policy if they are clear in their explanations.

All in all, my time in the Senate was inter­esting, exciting, and fun. It lead to my taking a leave of absence from Hillsdale to become Deputy State Trea­surer under Gov­ernor Engler, doing much the same thing as I was doing, only this time from the exec­utive branch. It was made up of winning the battle of ideas as Mises might say.  In fact, I brought up Mises fre­quently enough in tes­timony that the chief of staff to Gov­ernor Engler used to quote me as saying “I love Mises to pieces.”

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