In the first politically significant vote of the new session of Congress, the House killed Wednesday a proposed constitutional amendment to set term limits for federal legislators.
Although a majority of the lawmakers voted for the term limits measure, the 217-211 tally fell 69 votes shy of the two-thirds majority the amendment needed to clear the House.
“To adopt term limits is to play Russian Roulette with the future,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., whose panel sent the proposal to the floor. If the Constitution is changed and legislators are limited to only 12 years of service, “developing effective leaders would be a roll of the dice - a revolving door leadership with no continuity, no stability and no historical memory,” Hyde added.
A provision offered by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., would have restricted House members to six two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. The amendment wouldn’t have been retroactive to affect time already served by sitting legislators; it would have required ratification by three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 state legislatures within seven years of congressional passage.
The House vote effectively ends the matter for this session, avoiding the need for debate or votes in the Senate. Similarly, a 1995 drive for a term limits amendment failed to reach the Senate when House supporters fell 61 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
Though defeat this time around was never in doubt, some supporters said they felt compelled to heed the wishes of their state legislatures by supporting the issue in an on-the-record tally.
“It is important that we have this vote because it is the will of the American people to have term limits,” said Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., who was elected to Congress in 1994 with a wave of GOP reformers on the coattails of the Contract With America. Passage of a term limits amendment was a key provision of the contract.
During debate preceding the vote that rejected his amendment to the term limits measure, Ensign argued in favor of term limits as a means to break “the power of incumbency.
“A lot of good people are not coming into this body because of the power of incumbency,” he said.
Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., who is serving his third term, agreed that term limits would foster good government and fresh leaders. “It will give us representatives who put serving the interests of the people and advancing the good of the nation ahead of perpetuating their own legislative careers,” he said.
But Democrats seemed to enjoy watching Republicans fight among themselves over the issue, reveling at the discomfort it was apparently causing some GOP members.
“The exercise we are going through demonstrates how trivial this issue really is,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
“If someone truly believes it is morally wrong to serve here more than six or 12 years then they should exercise the courage of their convictions and not serve one day longer,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas.
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