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A state House divided? Shared power would force Dems, GOP to cooperate


Michigan is getting the battleground treatment in the final days of Election 2016 with visits from both Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But there is more at stake than the White House.

And, while Michigan’s 16 electoral votes certainly matter in the national scheme of things, Lansing is focused on whether Republicans will keep control of the state House of Representatives or whether Democrats will stage an upset and exert a level of influence they have not enjoyed through the six years so far of Governor Rick Snyder’s term and Republican control in Lansing.

But there is one other possibility: the tantalizing prospect of a 55-55 split in the 110-member state House of Representatives. Even Republicans - currently in the majority - expect they will lose seats in this presidential year when Democratic turnout is typically higher.

There are somewhere between a dozen and 15 seats in play, and Dems need to pick up nine to win control. That is, in fact, a lot to win, but not un-doable.

But what would happen if, come Wednesday morning, we found the state House is evenly divided and Republicans and Democrats had to get along.

This is not an entirely an academic exercise because it has happened before.

In 1992, the Michigan political establishment was stunned that, once the votes were counted Democrats lost, and Republicans won. No wait. It was the other way around. Nope. It was a tie.

So, what happens next? Cooperation?

Not yet.

If, there’s a tie in the upcoming session, we can be pretty confident that Republicans will use the “lame duck” session to play with the rules to place in cement the advantages they’ve enjoyed in the majority. That’s what the Democrats tried in ‘92.

Bill sides will also go on a recruiting spree to try and win over that crucial 56th vote.

Much easier said than done.

That’s because people believe in issues. These are candidates who fought through party primaries to be the nominee. They have friendships and alliances that they would have to give up.

Plus, party leadership would have to be very careful about how much they give up. That elusive 56th vote would have a lot of power. Maybe too much power.

Paul Hillegonds was the Republican leader in 1992 and served as co-speaker with the late Curtis Hertel, the Democratic leader. Hillegonds says both sides tried to find a turncoat through the end of the calendar year and, “only when both sides determined that wasn’t going to happen did we sit down and negotiate how to share power.”

That was certainly tough after both sides had fought so hard to win the majority. But Hillegonds says there was also a limit to his deal-making to try to win over Number 56.

That person would have immeasurable power to say “yes” or “no” on all kinds of big issues - and invite other lawmakers to do the same. Hillegonds says that would have made the job of managing the House that much more difficult, if not impossible.

So the decision was made that a 55-55 power sharing arrangement made more sense.

It was the more stable option if they were going to get anything done. And the 1993-94 session in the Michigan House of Representatives is considered one of the most productive in memory.

But not so productive that either political party wanted to make the “shared leadership” arrangement permanent.

Former Speaker Paul Hillegonds

You can listen to the full interview with former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds at the link above.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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