Tom Foley says Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling shows he was right about term limits for Congress all along. They require a constitutional amendment.
A sharply divided court struck down an Arkansas law that, like Washington’s 1992 initiative, banned federal lawmakers from the ballot after a set amount of terms.
So strong was the ruling that it has some conservative Republicans in the Legislature calling for a repeal of state term limits they face.
“I thought this is what the court would do,” said Foley, who campaigned against the initiative in 1992 and joined a lawsuit challenging it in 1993.
His part in the lawsuit was a key issue in the 1994 election, which he narrowly lost to Republican George Nethercutt. Foley joined the lawsuit after it was filed because some legal experts thought it was necessary to have a member of Congress - someone affected by the law - to keep the case from being dismissed.
“As it turned out, ironically, I don’t think my position was needed,” Foley said.
Defending one’s view of the Constitution is an issue that’s “worth laying down one’s seat for,” he said. Foley insisted he’s not bitter that he’s right, but out of office.
“I’m not going to try to second-guess the election. I’ve accepted my new life,” said Foley, who practices international law for a large law and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.
Term limits supporters made it clear Monday they still will trumpet Foley’s defeat as they seek support for a constitutional amendment for congressional term limits.
“The constitutional amendment was always the goal,” said attorney Cleta Mitchell. “With Foley as speaker, we could never get the Congress to allow the issue to be considered.”
Any lawmaker thinking of attacking the limits on state legislators - restrictions not part of the lawsuit and untouched by Monday’s court’s ruling - will get a similar warning.
“If they want to be the sacrificial lamb, that’s their problem,” said Sherry Bockwinkel, who spearheaded the initiative drive. “Anyone who tries to undo term limits will be voted out of office.”
But in Olympia, lawmakers were discussing just that.
Some predicted a legal challenge to Washington’s law will be filed by House members when they are barred from running again in 1998.
Others said lawmakers will take it upon themselves to change the law, with legislation that amends or even repeals it. That requires only a simple majority vote in both houses and a governor’s signature.
Many lawmakers said they never liked term limits and believe the Supreme Court decision has weakened the movement.
“I think there will be a challenge to term limits, maybe even here within the Legislature,” said Rep. Larry Sheahan, R-Rosalia, chairman of the House Law and Justice Committee.
Sheahan sees support in the Legislature for changing the law to give House members terms equal in length to senators. House members are limited to six years while senators can serve eight.
Each should be allowed to serve eight years, Sheahan said.
Some said term limits ought to be eliminated entirely, to keep lobbyists and bureaucrats from controlling the Legislature.
“With term limits you lose all your institutional memory,” said Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane. “Besides, we already have term limits. They are called elections.”
Sen. James West, R-Spokane, contends term limits hurt voters by turning government over to bureaucrats who try to outlast legislators, rather than making needed changes.
The problem, West said, “is anytime a legislator talks about term limits, it sounds self-serving.”
Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, said the only “safe” way to alter the term limits law would be to send the proposed changes to voters for approval.
Otherwise lawmakers would risk bearing the full brunt of voters’ wrath, Prince said. “You’d just be walking into it.”
Just ask Tom Foley.