Freshman Rep. George Nethercutt led one of the charges in the Republican revolution in Congress on Wednesday, serving as the point man when the House restricted the tenure of its most powerful members.
In a city where symbolism can be as important as substance, Nethercutt managed the debate on a rule that limits committee chairmen to six years and a House speaker to eight years.
It was the third of eight rules, clauses in the “Contract with America,” the GOP forced through the House in a historic opening day marathon. Other new rules reduce staffs, change the way budgets will be calculated, ban proxy votes and apply many of the nation’s laws to Congress.
After a half-hearted series of objections by Democrats - the minority’s second speaker actually said limiting the terms of chairmen was a good idea - the new rule sailed through the House 355-72, one of the biggest margins of the long night.
By choosing Nethercutt - a freshman given a rare chance to manage a debate while making his first speech as a congressman - Republicans seemed to be sending Democrats a message to ponder in their new-found minority status.
The message: Don’t even think about opposing term limits, or any of the other populist measures the GOP is pushing in its so-called contract.
Everyone in the chamber knew that the Spokane attorney was the first person in 134 years to beat a sitting speaker in an election. Everyone also knew that former House Speaker Tom Foley was adamantly opposed to term limits - to the point of joining a lawsuit to block a statewide initiative.
By putting Nethercutt at the microphone, the GOP was sending the signal that one can win a battle against term limits, as Foley did when a federal judge overturned the initiative, but that one might ultimately lose the war.
In defeating Foley, Nethercutt repeatedly said he would not serve more than six years - the limit set by the state initiative - regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
“It’s a matter of reforming our own workplace before we reform the nation,” Nethercutt said in his first address to the House. “Term limits are not considered radical, they are part of a strategy of conservative government.”
They will reduce the size and scope of government, he argued and are in the tradition of George Washington.
When Republican leaders asked Nethercutt to lead the debate, they didn’t mention anything about the symbolism they expected him to bring to the discussion.
He was given two minutes for his opening speech, then allowed to call on other representatives scheduled to fill the supporters’ 10 minutes of debate.
Although Nethercutt considers term limits a serious subject, he admitted the rule was in many respects symbolic.
First, the rule can be changed or even dropped by future congresses. And under the strict congressional term limits, which Nethercutt and some other Republicans support, it would be a moot point.
Washington state’s law - one model for GOP term limits - essentially forces a representative out of the House after six years, committee chairman or not. Few representatives could expect to become a committee chairman in the first term, so the rule would seldom be invoked.
Under that six-years-and-out system, no one could even serve the full eight years as speaker - a point several Democrats made in arguing against the rule.
Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., said the eight-year limit on a speaker was designed to coincide with the limit on the president. The speaker is second in line for presidential succession.
Other Democrats argued that it would force good chairmen out just as easily as it liberated the House from bad chairmen. “Experience counts in every aspect of life. It counts in Congress, too,” said Rep. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. He looked directly at Nethercutt, and said he was formerly chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee to which the Spokane representative was recently named.
“Experience on that subcommittee prepared me to do what the people of my district sent me to Washington to do,” Durbin said.
When the debate was over, all Republicans and more than half the Democrats had voted for the limits.
“It was because of my eloquent speech,” Nethercutt joked.
The debate on leadership limits was one of the night’s tamest and as the hours wore on, Democrat began grousing about the unprecedented length of the opening day. Traditionally, a new Congress is sworn in, then goes into recess for more than two weeks until the president delivers a State of the Union address.
But Republicans, particularly the large freshman class elected on a reform platform, were intent on voting on their contract.
As midnight approached, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., complained: “You said this chamber would be more family friendly. You didn’t say it was the Addams family.”