Term Limits Fail Again in the House
By John E. Yang
The House defeated a constitutional amendment that would have limited the time lawmakers may serve in the House and Senate -- a major issue in the Republicans' takeover of the House two years ago -- as supporters barely mustered even a simple majority of those voting, much less the two-thirds needed for passage.
The 217 to 211 roll call was a drop in support from 1995, when a term limits amendment won 227 votes as part of the GOP's effort to fulfill its "Contract With America" in the first 100 days of the session.
Opponents of the measure, which would have established a 12-year limit to House or Senate service, cited the vote as evidence that the drive for term limits was losing steam, especially in light of the tremendous turnover in the House recently. More than half of the members of the House are new since 1992.
"We should have faith in the voters to do the right thing," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a term limits opponent who is in his seventh term.
Proponents blamed internecine warfare among term limits supporters for the setback. Many lawmakers pointed to the group U.S. Term Limits, which sponsored ballot initiatives calling for six-year limits that prevailed in nine states and directed lawmakers to vote for the term limit proposal that passed in those states and no other. Those who do otherwise will be labeled as having disregarded voters' instructions if they seek reelection.
"We would have made progress today, we would have increased the vote" if not for that, said nine-term Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a leader of the term limits drive.
The measure that failed yesterday had the same 12-year limits for each chamber of Congress as the one defeated two years earlier. Years in office before the amendment took effect would not have been counted against the limit.
Backers of the effort said limits are needed to prevent lawmakers from becoming entrenched in Congress and isolated from voters. "Congress has become too much like a permanent class of professional legislators who can use the powers of the federal government to perpetuate their own careers," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), a third-term lawmaker who is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.
Opponents argued that limits on congressional service would thwart the will of the people to elect the representatives they want and rob Congress of valuable experience. "This seeks to alter democracy to reduce the choices of the voters," said nine-term Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
"America has need of its giants with their sense of the past and a vision of the future," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who is in his 12th term. "To adopt term limits is to play Russian roulette with the future."
Maryland Reps. Robert J. Ehrlich Jr. and Constance A. Morella and Virginia Reps. Herbert H. Bateman and Thomas J. Bliley Jr. were among the 45 Republicans who joined 165 Democrats and independent Rep. Bernard Sanders (Vt.) to oppose the amendment. Freshman Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (Va.) was one of 37 Democrats, 15 of them freshmen, who joined 180 Republicans in support of the amendment.
Before rejecting the GOP-backed amendment, lawmakers voted 329 to 97 against a proposal by third-term Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) that would have allowed state legislatures to enact lower term limits.
Lawmakers also rejected, 274 to 152, a proposal by Reps. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) to apply the six-term limit to the years served before the amendment took effect. That would have required both lawmakers to retire: Barton is in his seventh term and Dingell, the longest-serving member, is in his 22nd term.
A version offered by three-term Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.) that would have set an eight-year limit for the House and a 12-year limit for the Senate was defeated, 335 to 91.
Public opinion polls show that term limits remain popular with the voters. Yesterday's vote fulfilled the pledge made by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) after the 1995 effort fell 61 votes short of the the two-thirds majority mandated by the Constitution to make it the first significant vote of the new Congress.
In order to avoid having lawmakers run afoul of the U.S. Term Limits ballot initiatives, House leaders devised a cumbersome process by which the House considered 10 different versions of the amendment, including seven that had been approved on state ballots in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada and South Dakota. All were defeated. None got more than 87 votes.
It was all an exercise in political security, to avoid the capitalized notation at the next election that they had "violated voter instruction on term limits," which lawmakers have dubbed the "scarlet letter."
Jonathan Ferry, a U.S. Term Limits spokesman, accused House leaders of "trying to muddy the waters. . . . They're implying that they have the votes for a 12-year bill. . . . They don't have the votes, and they don't have a strategy for getting there."
Term Limits Legal Institute, a rival group, said U.S. Term Limits was sabotaging the effort. The group is engaged in "a bizarre national campaign of attacking term limits supporters both inside and outside the Congress who favor a version other than their preferred six-year limit," spokeswoman Cleta Mitchell said.
A group with close ties to U.S. Term Limits ran a television commercial in Florida this week in which McCollum's image was transformed into that of Cuban president Fidel Castro, saying he was disregarding the will of the people.
And the organization's Internet site accuses Gingrich, who is in his 10th term, of "hypocrisy" on the subject and depicts him with horns sprouting from his head. By tradition, the speaker rarely votes, but Gingrich voted for the amendment yesterday to underscore his support.
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