When a promise is not a promise

Zach Wamp

Tennessee Republican Rep. Zach Wamp this year is breaking a pledge he made in 1994 to seek no more than six terms, or 12 years, in the House.

Wamp also is overwhelmingly favored to win a seventh term this November — a fact that speaks volumes about how much the issue of congressional term limits has faded in recent years.

Wamp is far from alone. The advocacy organization U.S. Term Limits counts seven other members, all Republicans, whose personal term-limit pledges are coming due in this year: Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, Phil English of Pennsylvania, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Timothy V. Johnson of Illinois, Ric Keller of Florida, Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey and Mark Souder of Indiana.

All are seeking re-election; all are solid favorites to win.

It has been said that while voters still support the idea of term limits, the issue is not at the top of their agenda,” said JaOKck Pitney, a political scientist and term limit expert at California’s Claremont McKenna College.

“Arguing about term limits is like arguing about The X-Files: They canceled that show a long time ago….Voters have other things they’re worried about. ”

Most Republican term limits advocates promised only to seek legislation that would place such limits on all members. But about two dozen went further by voluntarily limiting themselves to a range of three to six two-year terms.

Some were in the vanguard, announcing their deadlines in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Most, like Wamp, were members of the huge Republican “Class of 1994” that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House: They ran on the GOP’s “Contract With America” — which included imposing term limits on “career politicians.”

A few stuck to these pledges. For example, there were five, all Republicans, who did not seek re-election in 2004: Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who won that year for the Senate; Porter Goss of Florida, who now heads the CIA; Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who staged an unsuccessful primary bid for the Senate and now heads the conservative organization Club for Growth; and two political retirees, Doug Ose of California and Nick Smith of Michigan.

By November 1994, at the peak of the term limits movement, 22 states had enacted limits on members of Congress. But the Supreme Court, correctly, in 1995 overturned them on grounds that they conflicted with the Constitution’s provisions governing congressional elections, which can be changed only by constitutional amendment.

Momentum on the term limits issue soon faded, though, after the Republicans settled into a House majority that has now grown to a dozen years. And most of the pledge-takers just as quickly had second thoughts.

Some said it would take longer than they had expected to make a legislative impact. Others said it would hurt their constituents for them to surrender the seniority they had built up. A few who represent politically competitive districts stated that their retirements could open up their seats to Democratic takeover.

And virtually all cited the fact that Congress had rejected term limit proposals in the mid-1990s that would have applied to all incumbents. The self-limited members said that sticking to their pledges would amount to “unilateral disarmament” for their districts.

They soon discovered that most voters would give them a pass. “Seniority and clout are plausible arguments for keeping a member of Congress in place,” said Pitney. “It doesn’t seem that voters are particularly passionate about holding lawmakers to term limit pledges.”

The big test came in 2000, when Republican George Nethercutt of Washington’s 5th District reneged on a pledge to serve no more than three terms.

Nethercutt made the pledge in his successful 1994 campaign to oust then-House Speaker Thomas S. Foley. Both Democrats and term limits activists were outraged when he backed off, and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau branded him the “Weasel King.” But voters forgave and easily re-elected Nethercutt, who served until he left the seat open in 2004 for a Senate bid that failed.

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