In what is shaping up to be a turbulent election year, with voters disgusted with Congress and disenchanted with both major political parties, could term limits re-emerge as a salient issue this year?
Advocates of limits on Congressional service hope and expect so, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest insurgent-minded candidates are talking about it.
The issue flourished in an anti-incumbent political environment two decades ago — and was among the factors that contributed to the 1994 Republican revolution — but it eventually ran out of steam.
But this year, candidates all over the nation are positioning themselves as political “outsiders” running against “career politicians” in a Congress that is the oldest and longest-tenured in history.
“That’s our big issue, actually, probably the No, 1 issue I talk about,” said Rand Paul, an eye surgeon and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) who is one of two major Republican candidates seeking to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).
“I always felt like there were problems, really, on both sides of the aisle, a lot of it related to longevity and seniority,” Rand Paul said. “I see the pork-barrel spending as being related to seniority.”
Paul is one of a few prominent House and Senate candidates who have included term limits in their campaign platforms. Other term-limits advocates include Senate hopeful Marco Rubio (R) in Florida; Stephen Fincher (R), a leading candidate to succeed retiring Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.); and Iraq War veteran Tommy Sowers (D), a long-shot candidate against Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.). All but Rubio are running for political office for the first time.
Rubio, a former Florida Speaker, supports term limits in part because he has been term-limited himself — in the state Legislature, where Members of the House can’t serve more than eight years.
“Having been term-limited out of office, he sees a lot of pros, a lot of positives with the concept and the idea that there should be renewal in our democracy and people should not spend a lifetime in Congress and in Washington,” said Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Rubio, who is battling Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination.
Fincher, a farmer and gospel singer who has never before run for office, said he supports term limits and other reforms “because we need to fundamentally change Washington.”
“I hope term limits will lead to fewer politicians and more citizens in office,” said Fincher, who has pledged to serve 12 years.
He said tea party activists are supporting him in part because of term limits, “but mostly it’s our overall message of listening to people and remembering that power doesn’t belong to Washington, it belongs to the people.”
Sowers’ support for term limits is unconventional, if only because he belongs to the party that controls Congress.
But Sowers traces his support for term limits to his reading of the intent of the Constitution’s framers, discussions with Members of Congress and the strong anti-incumbent sentiment that he has witnessed across the economically struggling district he seeks to represent. Sowers proposes term limits as one of several prescriptions to ridding Congress of what he calls the “cancer of incumbency.”
“It’s worked at the presidential level. It’s worked at a lot of state legislative levels,” Sowers said. “And more than that, I know a lot of people in the 8th Congressional district who sort of implicitly understand that the deck is stacked against challengers and getting new blood into Congress. Term limits solve that problem.”
Sowers is the only major Democratic candidate who is promoting term limits. It would seem that future term-limits pledges would come mostly, if not exclusively, from Republicans because they are the out-of-power party.
But Paul Jacob, a former president of U.S. Term Limits, thinks the issue will have more of a bipartisan flavor this year.
“I think you will see more Democrats embracing it,” he said. “It’s a winning issue.”
Jason Miller, a national Republican strategist, said that “whether or not there’s an explicit term-limits message in various candidates’ platforms, I think you’re definitely seeing it in the rhetoric when you hear candidates being outsiders, being new to the political process, running because they’re angry with what they’re seeing in Washington and in state capitals all across the country.”
“These are traditional themes from the term-limits movement,” Miller said.
Still, some political analysts are skeptical the issue will have legs this year.
Term limits would have to compete for the attention of voters who already are preoccupied with big-ticket issues like the economy, jobs, health care and government spending.
For Republicans, the term-limits platform is a familiar one. In 1994, as the GOP plotted to take control of Congress, it released its “Contract With America” that called, in part, for “a first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.”
The following year, the GOP-controlled Congress didn’t come close to advancing a constitutional amendment, and the movement petered out after numerous Members reneged on their pledges to limit their service.
“No doubt some of that history is familiar to ordinary voters,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “A term-limits pledge doesn’t pack the same kind of wallop it did 16 years ago.”
Last fall, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) introduced a constitutional amendment requiring term limits, the first such measure introduced in more than a decade. But his amendment isn’t likely to even get a hearing.
Former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.), who honored a pledge to serve three terms, said relying on individual Members to limit their service “has an obvious negative outcome, and that is the true independent, maverick reformers leave.”
“Most people who support term limits would rather keep those kinds of people in office for a while,” he said. “In a way, it becomes an unwitting strategy for unilateral disarmament that favors the professional politicians.”
Philip Blumel, a Florida financial planner who is president of U.S. Term Limits, said the broken term-limits pledges are a reason term limits need to be applied universally. He wants candidates to endorse legislative action on term limits more than making individual term-limits pledges.
“We try to encourage candidates to pledge to support term-limits legislation, not necessarily limiting themselves,” Blumel said.
Sowers suggested more candidates could come out for term limits if they canvassed voters in their districts and states.
“I think if they talk to people in their districts, they’ll discover that a lot of voters want it,” he said. “I think they recognize that especially in areas like mine, where the deck is stacked against the small guy and gal, that term limits is something that a lot of voters in America support.”