Strange Bedfellow

Term Limit Traitors

In which the radical Republicans belatedly discover the value–and power–of congressional seniority.

Before they got control of Congress, conservatives contended that the big problem in Washington was an infestation of vermin known as “career politicians.” The newcomers came armed with a powerful repellent. Setting maximum terms of between six and 12 years in office would function as an antidote to Potomac fever and restore the place of the “citizen legislator,” whose loyalty would remain with the voters who elected him, not the institution in which he served.

This movement caught fire in 1994. By the end of that year, 22 states had passed term limitations on their own congressional delegations. But because it wasn’t yet clear whether these limits were constitutional–the Supreme Court decided in 1995 that they weren’t–the Contract With America also endorsed a term limits amendment to the Constitution. And since a constitutional amendment might not pass, many congressional candidates in 1994 and since have term limited themselves voluntarily. That is, they’ve promised to call it quits after six to 12 years in the House and 12 years in the Senate. One gung-ho freshman elected in ‘94 even gave the clerk of the House a letter of resignation dated January 2001 to demonstrate the sincerity of his promise.

Forced retirement was a distant prospect then. But now the most enthusiastic term limiters in the House are facing the expectation that they will follow through on their pledge. For those who vowed to return to their plows after six years, the next term will be their last. Several of those freshmen actually appear to take the idea that they made a promise seriously and have reaffirmed their intentions of stepping down. But others are discovering nuances to the issue they never noticed before. In other words, they have turned into term limit traitors.

The Benedict Arnold of the term limits movement is George Nethercutt of Washington state. Nethercutt defeated the last Democratic speaker of the House, Tom Foley, in 1994 on a platform that consisted of little more than term limits for members of Congress. He rode to office by allying himself with a state term limit initiative that Foley filed suit to overturn. Nethercutt recently changed his mind. “Make no mistake, I remain committed to term limits, but experience has taught me that six years may be too short,” he said in a statement issued in February. In a follow-up interview, Nethercutt said that if the voters in Washington’s Fifth District clamored for him to stay, he would consider it.

Of course, the chief objection to term limits has always been that the people should have the right to elect whoever they want to represent them in Congress, including someone they have elected repeatedly before. Nethercutt now sees the merit of this argument, but he’s far from admitting he was wrong. He says he’s still for term limits–he just had the details wrong. Twelve years would be a more appropriate limit for the House–with nothing precluding another 12 in the Senate. And if Washington voters decide they still want Nethercutt after 24 years? We can cross that bridge when we come to it.

N ethercutt’s fellow turncoat is John Shadegg of Arizona, one of the young hotheads in the freshman class of ‘94. In his first congressional campaign, Shadegg promised he would abide by the six-year limit set by Arizona voters. That limit, however, was declared unconstitutional, and Shadegg now feels the tug of his broader responsibilities. “The people who are honoring the six-year term limit are the ones with the most revolutionary zeal, and they’re the ones that are leaving,” he recently told the Arizona Republic, explaining his defection. In other words, Shadegg thinks people like himself who support term limits must go back on their word to prevent people who are really against term limits from getting elected.

Another slow learner is Scott McInnis of Colorado, who was elected in 1992. McInnis has announced he will not step aside in 2000 as he had originally promised. His reason is that before he was elected to the House, he didn’t understand how important the seniority system was in Congress. If Colorado’s representatives were to heed term limits, the state’s congressional delegation would be less powerful than the delegations from states that don’t recognize term limits. The upshot, he says, would be unilateral disarmament for his state.

The problem with these arguments is not that they are bad arguments. In fact, they’re quite sensible. The seniority system means you get power by serving long enough to gain seniority. And a state that voluntarily limits the terms of its representatives harms itself relative to others. But there is no excuse for McInnis’ just coming to grips with these objections. After 10 years in the Colorado House of Representatives, the last two as majority leader, he’s no stranger to the concept of seniority. As to the unilateral disarmament point: It’s a very solid objection. But it was an even better objection when McInnis supported the passage of Colorado’s term limits law in 1994. Had the Supreme Court upheld the Colorado law, a binding term limit on all the state’s legislators would have put it at a far greater disadvantage than a disposable promise by a few of its legislators. In fact, McInnis and his colleagues knew perfectly well what they were committing to when they swore they’d limit their own terms. But back when they made those promises, before they’d ever been elected to Congress, the prospect of leaving in six or eight or a dozen years didn’t sound so bad.

The hypocrisy here does not belong just to the few who made specific pledges. Term limits was the official position of the Republican Party in 1994. The Contract With America called for term limits for the entire House and Senate. (Of course, if you read the fine print, it only promised to bring such a proposal up for a vote.) More senior Republicans have been as disingenuous as the young bloods. They’ve just been more adept at avoiding personal embarrassment. Take Bill McCollum, a Florida representative who is one of the leaders on the issue in the House. He’s in his 18th year of service and is running for re-election. No one back home is giving him a hard time on the issue, because he was not so foolish as to make a personal promise to step down.

The term limits craze makes a nice case study in political demagoguery. All the problems the Republican radicals are belatedly recognizing now were totally obvious at the outset. Before long, we can expect to hear retirement-averse conservatives making the rest of the fine arguments against term limits. Experience, they will discover, is actually valuable. The fact that voters can and do reject incumbents will strike them as an epiphany. Republican term limit traitors don’t need to apologize for changing their minds, which they have every right to do. What they owe us is an admission that their professed faith in term limits was phony in the first place.