After months of hot oratory about the evils of career politicians, the House of Representatives voted squarely against the will of the people Wednesday night and rejected four proposals that would have limited the number of terms its members could serve.
The votes were the first ever to be held on a constitutional amendment on term limits - a bad idea, acknowledged some of its reluctant supporters, but one whose time had come.
Still, all four measures failed, making term limits the first item in the Republicans’ “Contract With America” to go down to defeat in the House.
Although polls showed that the idea of term limits has broad popular support among Americans, Democrats said the proposals were doomed from the start because Republicans do not want to cut short their time in Washington any more than Democrats do.
Indeed, the most stirring denunciation of term limits came from a prominent Republican, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who commanded the well of the House chamber for nearly 15 minutes.
“I just can’t be an accessory to the dumbing-down of democracy,” said Hyde, who first was elected in 1974.
Quoting sources as diverse as the political philosopher Edmund Burke and the raconteur and pianist Oscar Levant, Hyde extolled the value of experience, lamented “this corrosive attack on the consent of the governed” and urged his colleagues not to yield “to the angry, pessimistic populism that drives this movement.”
His speech drew standing ovations from both sides of the aisle and applause from the gallery of tourists - and consigned those who spoke after him to near oblivion.
A Democrat, Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, succinctly summarized the core of the opposition. “We’ve already got term limits,” he said. “They’re called elections.”
Democrats contended that the Republican leadership had organized the votes in such a way to guarantee their failure.
Earlier in the day, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., had called the whole issue a political gimmick to cater to opinion polls.
If a secret House vote were taken, he added, it would sink like a stone. “There are more people in this body voting yes and praying no on term limits as would be voting no and praying yes if the issue was a pay raise,” said Frank.
The first measure to lose Wednesday night would have set 12-year limits for members of both the House and Senate and would have applied them to people now in Congress. That is, anyone who had already served 12 years could not run for reelection. This Democratic-sponsored measure failed with 297 votes against it and 135 for it.
If it had passed the House by the required 290 votes and then the Senate, and won ratification in 38 states, as Constitutional amendments must do, 82 members of the 435-member House would have been barred from running next year.
The second measure to fail would have set six-year limits for members of the House and 12-year limits for the Senate. This proposal lost with 316 members, including 133 Republicans, voting against it and 114, including 96 Republicans, for it. It was sponsored by Rep. Bob Inglis, a second-term Republican from South Carolina, and drew support from among the most militant proponents of term limits.
The third vote to fail would have set 12-year limits for people elected to the House or Senate after the amendment was ratified, and would have allowed states to set even shorter terms. It failed 164 for to 265 against. It was sponsored by Rep. Van Hilleary, a freshman Republican from Tennessee, who won support from fellow freshmen and other Republicans.
The fourth measure, sponsored by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., would have limited members of the House and Senate to 12 years but was silent on any state restrictions. It was defeated 227 for, 204 against and 1 voting present.
Just before the fourth and final vote, Speaker Newt Gingrich took the floor to tell members that, despite Wednesday night’s votes, term limits would eventually become law because Americans are “sick of professional politicians.”
He pledged that if Republicans retained their House majority in the 1996 elections, term limits would be the first item voted on when Congress convened in January 1997.
“In the end,” he declared, “the will of the American people is sovereign.”
A Constitutional amendment for term limits was perhaps the most popular item, along with a balancedbudget amendment, in the Republican’s 10-item contract. Up to 80 percent of Americans support term limits, according to various opinion surveys.
Since 1990, 22 states have passed term limits for members of Congress elected from those states. The Supreme Court is to rule soon on the constitutionality of states setting limits for federal office.
While Republicans generally supported the measures, in public, and Democrats generally opposed them, the sharper divisions ran along generational lines. Newer members were eager to pierce the hidebound careerism in Congress while senior members asserted that there was no substitute for experience and institutional memory.
Supporters of term limits acknowledged that the Founding Fathers did not limit congressional terms, but they said that the founders had clearly wanted a citizen legislature, not one of full-time politicians.
“The people who run this institution are people who have been around for a long time,” said Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., first elected in 1990. “They get out of touch, they get unresponsive, they get to be more a part of the Washington culture than the culture that elected them.”
xxxx HOW THEY VOTED Here’s how Northwest lawmakers voted on a term limit proposal introduced by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. Idaho. Republicans Helen Chenoweth and Mike Crapo voted “yes.” Washington. Republicans Jennifer Dunn, Doc Hastings, Jack Metcalf, George Nethercutt, Linda Smith, Randy Tate and Rick White voted “yes.” Democrats Norm Dicks and Jim McDermott voted “no.”