Term limits? What term limits?

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted April 1999

They swarmed Washington back in 1994 with a popular "take no prisoners" agenda, including a vow to institute term limits unilaterally, if they had to, by simply not seeking re-election to the Congress in the year 2000.

It worked. Though such promises as a vote to restore the Second Amendment by rolling back the so-called "assault weapons ban" were quickly sacrificed to a bloated Beltway troll called "political pragmatism," the term limits pledge was an enormously popular part of the Contract With America that won GOP control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., took his own vow seriously enough that upon arriving in Washington in early 1995, he promptly submitted his resignation, pre-dated to 2001.

Mr. Salmon has kept his vow -- he won't be seeking a fourth term next year. But of the eight remaining House Republicans whose term-limit pledges now fall due, at least three are openly considering reneging, according to the Los Angeles Times recently.

In each case, the lawmakers cited precisely the advantages of seniority which they mocked five years ago -- prestigious committee assignments and the ability to bring home more federal bacon to the folks back in Palookaville.

Among those who "see things differently" after a few years on the hill is Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who vowed in 1992 to serve only six years.

But Rep. McInnis announced last year that adhering to his youthful pledge would only put his constituents at a disadvantage. "How would Colorado fight California on water, on natural resources?" without him, Rep. McInnis asked. "At the time, term limits was sweeping the country. Every state was going to be there. But then the Supreme Court ruling came down [voiding an Arkansas law that limited congressional terms] and no district had to abide by term limits."

Ah, so Congressman's McInnis' pledge was more a conditional one, as it turns out, meant to be relied upon only if everyone else did it. Apparently Coloradans -- who dutifully elected him to a fourth term last November -- should have read the fine print more closely.

Others whine that they have only just attained committee or leadership posts, which they haven't even had the time to wield to full advantage.

The new vice chairwoman of the GOP Conference is Rep. Tillie K. Fowler, R-Fla., who set a four-term cap on her own service when she was elected in 1992. But now "I'm going to spend the next year learning about my role in leadership," Ms. Fowler explains. "Some say it'd take more than two years to be effective at it."

Then -- get this -- Ms. Fowler says she will decide whether or not to run again after extensive dialogue with constituents -- paying special attention to those who benefit from various federal boondoggles whose loot she can carry home, no doubt.

But whatever she decides, "I'm still a supporter of term limits," Ms. Fowler vows. "I don't intend to be a career politician."

No, of course not. Just a brief 20 or 30 years in the House -- added to her earlier five years as a House legislative assistant and do-gooder at the White House Office of Consumer Affairs -- should probably be enough. After which Ms. Fowler will surely go back to running a little drug store in Milledgeville, Ga. like her daddy, don't you think, never even thinking about becoming a high-paid Washington lobbyist or lawyer ... right?

The fact that this is all so predictable makes it no less sad and exasperating. Even "brash young reformers," once given seats at the table of power, soon come to believe they are indispensable -- and that the very divvying up of looted pork which term limits was supposed to help terminate, is a noble end in itself, and a good excuse for staying!

"The longer you stay, the easier it is to raise money, the better your committee assignments, the bigger your pension," warns the retiring Rep. Salmon.

"They made the pledge, not the voters," agrees Paul Jacob, national director of U.S. Term Limits, who with other term limits proponents vows to spend $20 million spotlighting incumbents who break their promises next year.

"The ultimate bedrock of representative government is trust, and we do much harm when we don't keep our word," warns Rep. Marshall "Mark" Sanford, R-S.C., who was elected in 1994 and has announced he will step down on schedule next year. "The only thing that frees one from intimidation in the political world is knowing you won't be here forever."

Clearly, just putting well-meaning "reformers" in charge of the levers of power won't work. Washington now disposes of a quantity of power very close to Lord Acton's "absolute power which corrupts absolutely." What must be found is not merely a "better class of angels" to rule us, but instead a way to restore limits on the very amount of addictive power and money Washington controls.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers" is available at $21.95 plus $3 shipping ($6 UPS) through Mountain Media, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127. The 500-page trade paperback may also be ordered via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html, or at 1-800-244-2224. Credit cards accepted; volume discounts available.

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