Anticipating defeat on a critical tenet of their “Contract With America,” House Republicans hope to reap credit for holding a vote on term limits while blaming Democrats for the measure’s expected demise.
“If we get half the Democrats, we will pass the term limits constitutional amendment,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared Tuesday as debate opened. He said that more than 85 percent of GOP lawmakers would vote for the measure and “it ought to be possible to get half the Democrats to side with the country that elects them.”
But term limits supporters have charged that Republicans are only paying lip service to the concept now that they have won power and have structured the debate so no one version can win the necessary two-thirds majority needed for passage. Indeed, a number of senior Republicans opposes term limits and, unlike other contract issues, the leadership has not put significant pressure on members to vote for term limits.
Republicans sought from the opening moments of debate to reap political gain from merely bringing the issue to the floor.
The previous House speaker, Democrat Tom Foley, “refused to allow term limits to come to the floor for a debate and vote,” noted Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla.
Foley was defeated last fall in a race that turned, in part, on a lawsuit he had filed challenging a statewide ballot initiative to impose term limits in Washington state.
Because of widespread legal opinion that the Constitution bars changes in the conditions for choosing members of Congress, the effort to impose term limits is taking the form of a constitutional amendment proposal. That, of course, requires a two-thirds majority in both houses and the ratification of three-fifths of the state legislatures.
By their latest count, Republican leaders are at least 60 votes shy of the 290 needed to approve an amendment if all members vote. Indeed, the hard count indicates there may not even be a simple majority - 218 votes in the 435-member House - in favor of the idea.
“We don’t have the votes yet but we’re still trying,” said chief sponsor Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. “Even if we don’t get it this time, it’s an idea whose time has come - and someday, sooner rather than later, it’s going to happen.”
Opinion polls have shown consistently that between 70 and 80 percent of American voters support term limits.
Those findings prompted GOP House leaders to include the idea last year as an important component of their contract. Some have portrayed it as one of the two or three key features of the Republican manifesto.
Most term limit supporters outside Congress are partial to three two-year terms (six years) in the House and two six-year terms (12 years) in the Senate. The Constitution already restricts presidents to two four-year terms (eight years).
Within Congress, objections to term limits cross party lines, although more Democrats than Republicans oppose them. Among Republicans, however, some key members - including several committee chairmen - are opposed.
“It’s the antithesis of democracy,” said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “The freedom of voters to choose whomever they want, including incumbents, to serve them is the essence of democracy. Practically speaking, term limits are already in effect any time voters want to invoke them.”
Besides, say opponents, terms limits are unnecessary. Turnover in Congress is high and steady, averaging almost 50 percent every six to eight years, assuring a gush of new blood into the institution.
Advocates of limits say this is nonsense, that the existing electoral system breeds “careerist politicians,” with ready access to special-interest campaign funds, whose chief aim is not so much to serve the public as to perpetuate their own cushy stays in office.
“Too many members believe they’re entitled to their seats and all the benefits they’ve created along with them,” said Cleta Mitchell, a former Oklahoma legislator and now director of the Term Limits Legal Institute.
The populist crusade to impose limits has been damaged by sharp conflicts over tactics and strategy within the term-limits movement and between the movement and its congressional allies.
Inside the movement itself, several groups have been unable to agree to a single amendment proposal. Some want a six-year limit on House tenure, others are willing to settle for 12 years, still others are insisting that it can be done by passing a regular bill - rather than a constitutional amendment - requiring only a simple majority.
This has diffused the pro-limits focus and made it difficult to concentrate lobbying pressure on a single proposal. It has also pitted potential allies against one another in a kind of self-defeating conflict that plays into the hands of term-limit opponents.
The drive for passage has been further riven by the GOP leadership’s clash with outside advocates over the scope of the amendment.
Most populist groups, for instance, want House members limited to three terms. Gingrich and his supporters are insisting on six terms.
“If you have a leadership in this country that has only a six-year learning curve, that’s too short,” Gingrich said.
Congress needs the experience and seasoning of legislators who have had time to master the intricacies of federal programs and policies, Gingrich argued. Otherwise they will be at the mercy of executive-branch bureaucrats and career congressional staffs, as well as plugged-in lobbyists.
The dispute among the potential allies has become so bitter that some outside groups have been running media spots against members like McCollum - who was one of the earliest congressional champions of limits.
The vote this week, probably on Thursday, will be played against this dissonant background. GOP leaders, after weeks of plotting to structure the vote so that it appears the Democrats will be to blame for the loss, have come up with a tortured procedure that will allow votes on four separate approaches.
All four would limit senators to two terms.
But the basic proposal, backed by Gingrich and other top party leaders, would impose a lifetime limit of six terms on House members. It would not be effective until ratification, and past service would not count toward the 12-year limit.
A second would limit House members to three terms, rather than six.
The third would limit House members to six terms, but permit shorter limits if states pass laws calling for them. So far, 22 states have passed congressional term limits - but those laws are under review in federal courts on constitutional grounds. Two federal courts already have deemed them unconstitutional and the Supreme Court is expected this spring to make a final ruling.
Finally, the Democrats, led by their longest-serving member, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan (with 40 years in Congress), will propose a plan that would limit service to 12 years but make it retroactive.
This means that anybody who has already served that long - including prominent figures such as Gingrich and Dingell himself - would have to step down in the next election.
xxxx LIMITING TERMS The four term-limit proposals to be voted on by the House this week. All provide for a limit of two six-year terms for senators: A Democratic proposal setting a limit of six twoyear terms for House members and counting past service against the total. It would permit states to set stricter limits. A version backed by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., setting a six-term limit. There would be no retroactivity, and it is silent on the issue of state limits. A proposal backed by Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., setting a three-term limit. No retroactivity, silent on the issue of state limits. An alternative backed by Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn., setting a six-term limit and permitting states to set stricter limits.