Reaching the Limit on Term Limits

Posted December 1, 2010 at 6:31pm

Majority Leader-designate Eric Cantor and other factions in the House Republican Conference have expressed support for term-limiting GOP leaders, but several lawmakers said Wednesday that the idea is a nonstarter.

The Virginia Republican said Monday that the idea of establishing term limits for top leadership positions was being discussed as part of the ongoing conversations about potential changes to the rules.

“In the context of leadership, I am for them,” Cantor said in response to a student’s question about term limits during a forum at American University. “We have some discussions ongoing right now about leadership and about how long those of us in elected leadership can stay, and I’m absolutely for making sure those term limits are in place.”

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, said the Congressman was referring to discussions about long-term changes to the House, rather than anything that would be implemented in the next Congress.

“The transition team has focused on both immediate and long term ways to modernize and reform the institution so that it is more transparent and accountable to the people,” Dayspring wrote in an e-mail. “Discussions about term limits for both committee posts and leadership posts have been a part of those longer term discussions, and that is what Eric was referring to.”

But while Republicans are poised to keep the three-term limitation on committee chairmen, several lawmakers said there was less enthusiasm for creating caps for elected leadership.

A spokesman for Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to comment for this report.

Several lawmakers involved with the House Republican transition team predicted the proposal was unlikely to be part of the group’s reforms.

“People are talking about term limits across the board,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, the leader of the transition working group charged with reviewing House and Conference rules. “There is a slight difference in everyone’s mind between a chairman who gets appointed by the Steering Committee [and] then stays there forever versus leadership who have to face the Conference every two years,” the Utah Republican said.

A decision of that nature would be out of the transition team’s jurisdiction, Bishop added.

“Leadership must discuss whether it is done or not,” he said. “Everything has to be run by the Conference. There are some issues like that that are so easily understandable, but that’s really going to be a Conference-wide decision.”

The idea to impose term limits on leaders is not new. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) implemented eight-year term limits on the office of the Speaker in 1995 — the measure was overturned in 2003 during the tenure of then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Hastert ended up serving eight years as Speaker.

Incoming Rules Chairman David Dreier said that, in hindsight, Gingrich’s limit might have been unconstitutional. 

“Since that time there are some that argue it is a constitutional issue by virtue of the fact the Speaker is a constitutional officer,” the California Republican said. “You don’t have to be a Member of this body to be Speaker of the House.”

Rep. Greg Walden, who heads the GOP transition team, said the idea had been discussed, but he agreed the constitutional concern was one of the reasons that the change would not be made.

“Our leadership stands for office every cycle. That open forum is going to continue,” the Oregon lawmaker said.

But not all Members were willing to rule out the potential change.

Presumptive Education and Labor Chairman John Kline, a big supporter of term limits for committee chairmen and a member of the Republican Steering Committee, said he hasn’t formed an opinion yet. “It’s an interesting thing to think about,” the Minnesota lawmaker said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), founder of the Tea Party Caucus, said she supports term limits, particularly for members of the Steering Committee.

“Turnover is a healthy thing,” Bachmann said. She has proposed that Steering Committee members be limited to six years on the panel.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), incoming head of the Republican Study Committee, said that he hadn’t given a lot of thought to leadership term limits but that “in general, it makes sense.”

One Member suggested that to the extent anyone is talking about limits for elected leaders, it’s less a serious proposal and more a concept floated as a nod to the party’s conservative base.

“There’s a lot of posturing to win the love,” the Member said.