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Term-Limits Issue Lacks the Political Punch It Once Had

One proposal voters heard a lot about in the 1990s was Congressional term limits. The idea of replacing career politicians with citizen legislators seemed to strike a chord with voters and even some lawmakers, and a term-limit provision was included in the 1994 Republican “Contract With America.”

For a while at least, Congressional term limits seemed to be as hip as New Age coffee houses. Dozens of Congressional candidates, verbally or in writing, agreed to limit their service on Capitol Hill.

“People want a mechanism for getting rid of you when they don’t think you are paying attention to them,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the architect of the Contract With America, said in an interview last week.

But like the Macarena dance craze, term limits might be another fad that didn’t quite make it out of the ’90s. Even those lawmakers who promised to stay in Congress for a limited time are looking to renege on those commitments.

Today four Members who signed pledges to not run again after the 2004 election are getting ready for the 2006 campaign, according to the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits. That group includes two Members who were elected in 1994 — Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) — and Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) from the class of 2000.

Those who advocated for term limits in the past are debating whether there is a political risk to officeholders who break them.

“It hurts them a lot because it makes them lesser people,” said Paul Jacob, a senior fellow at U.S. Term Limits. “It’s hard to say how it hurts them politically but one thing seems pretty obvious from the record, no one who has broken a term-limit pledge has won a higher office. … They can keep their seats, but they have not been able to move up.”

The most recent example was former Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who broke his three-term pledge in 2000 and lost a Senate race last year.

By contrast, now-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was elected in 2004 after a four-year break from Congressional service. He left the House in 2000 to honor a three-term commitment.

Jacob said that on the state and local level, support for term limits is on the rise but “it doesn’t get talked about much on the federal level anymore because Congress is held in such low esteem it’s not worth the effort for most Americans.”

Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.), who kept his pledge in 1996 to serve only three terms in the House and stepped down in 2002, said the political dynamic has changed since term limits were all the rage.

“The infatuation for term limits among voters has diminished dramatically since the mid-1990s when they caught on,” said Schaffer, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in the 2004 Republican primary. “Voters seem to be pretty forgiving of incumbents who have broken their pledges.”

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, term limits seemed like a good way to remove the dishonest lawmakers who were dominating the headlines, Schaffer said.

“Term limits seemed to be a good way to throw the bums out,” he said. “But term limits were dwarfed by the Gingrich revolution, which threw the bums out and did it in a different way.”

During his last term in Congress, Schaffer received a lot of pressure from fellow lawmakers, and even President Bush, to go back on the pledge he made in 1996.

“I wish I hadn’t taken the pledge all the time and probably in the middle of my second term I realized that I wished I hadn’t done it. But I did do it and I did it rather publicly. … I didn’t want to break a promise,” he said.

Bob Holste, chief of staff for Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who pledged in 1994 to vote for mandatory term-limit legislation if it was brought to the floor, said that mandatory term limits just don’t seem to resonate with voters anymore.

“The object of the game was to have a rule that applied to everybody and we tried that,” Holste said. “We pledged to support it and vote for it and we kept that promise … [but] it waxes and wanes in terms of political attractiveness.”

Other issues, such as terrorism and Social Security, have moved to the forefront for voters, Holste said. “It’s just the nature of the world.”

Like English, Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) agreed to support term-limit legislation but didn’t actually limit themselves. Cubin’s reasons were based on the nature of the Congressional seniority system.

“She thinks it’s especially hurtful when you’re from a small rural area from Wyoming,” said Cubin’s press secretary, Joe Milciewski. “She still thinks it’s great if everyone does it but if not, you’re just asking the little guys to give up their seniority and that’s a terrible idea.”

Souder’s rethinking of term limits came when he got an influx of new constituents following the latest round of redistricting.

“Mr. Souder told the media in interviews that because he now represented a new, substantially altered district his statement in support of term limits back in 1994 would not apply to the new district,” said Souder’s press secretary, Martin Green.

Matt Bisbee, press secretary for Johnson — who announced during the August recess of 2002 that he would consider his term-limit pledge moot — said the Illinois Congressman realized early on that making the pledge was an error and he wanted to give the voters a chance to discuss the issue before his first reelection campaign.

“We thought if it was something they wanted to base their votes on in 2002 then so be it,” Bisbee said. “If somebody does bring it up we’re willing to address it, but we think we’ve given people ample opportunity. … There’s still a lot of work to be done, and seniority counts on Capitol Hill.”

When Flake announced in November that he would break his promise and seek re-election in 2006, he too said he had made a mistake when he signed his pledge. But, perhaps understanding today’s political landscape surrounding term limits, Flake said he’s willing to take whatever heat comes with breaking his promise.

“While I did see the potential downside to self-imposed term limits at that time, I thought that the pluses outweighed the minuses, I was wrong,” he said in a statement. “Some will say that this will be a legitimate campaign issue. In truth, it ought to be. But I am comfortable leaving it up to the voters.”

Gingrich predicted that Congress hasn’t seen the end of the term-limits debate.

“It’ll come back,” he said. “Unless the Republican Congress is careful about staying in touch with the voters, it’ll come back.”

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