Coming to Term Limits
By Thomas B. Edsall
Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) looked uncomfortable.
Surrounded by Christian and ideological conservatives supporting his besieged bid for a 13th term, Goodling, a moderate of the old school, plaintively told the gathering in the second-floor meeting room of the York Christian School:
"This has been the most unusual election I've ever been through in my life. I don't understand. I'm still trying to figure out what is really going on."
What's going is that Goodling in March 1996 pledged to support a constitutional amendment limiting House members to three two-year terms but then voted against that measure and instead supported an amendment allowing six terms. And now despite his record of supporting major conservative causes, term-limit advocates have turned against him -- putting Goodling in a fight for his political survival.
Goodling, 70, has easily won every election since his first in 1974. The low-key chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee has prided himself on prevailing with an all-volunteer staff and a shoestring budget. No more.
The veteran Republican is caught up in a war of interest groups. Once firm allies of the right -- and key players in the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994 -- U.S. Term Limits and its sister organization, Americans for Limited Terms, have become political rogue elephants.
These two groups may channel as much as $10 million into negative campaigns against House candidates who refuse to pledge to serve no more than three two-year terms. Already, their negative campaigns have contributed to the defeat of two up-and-coming conservatives, Tom Bordonaro, who lost to Democrat Lois Capps in a Santa Barbara, Calif., special election, and Peter Roskam, who lost to moderate Republican Judy Biggert in a GOP primary in suburban Chicago.
This month, the term-limit groups threaten to take out Goodling, who won the admiration of segments of the political right by defeating President Clinton's call for national education standards, and Gex "Jay" Williams, a Republican star in the Kentucky legislature who helped orchestrate a conservative coup in the state Senate, opening the door to passage of a number of antiabortion bills.
National GOP leaders are so concerned that they have called for reinforcements to save Goodling. Money and staff is flowing in from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and political pros are designing his TV ads, polling voters and conducting focus groups in an effort to sway the May 19 primary vote.
The dispute over the term-limit pledge reveals a schism within the GOP and the conservative movement. This split is between those who believe holding political office in Washington corrupts and requires constant turnover, and those on the right who believe that experience makes for a better legislator and that personal term limits only serve to increase the power of liberal and moderate adversaries. This conflict has become increasingly acute as Republicans continue to hold the majority in Congress and realize that for a junior member to achieve a committee chairmanship or influential position in the House takes more than three terms.
Back in 1994 and 1996, outraged Democrats denounced the term-limits movement as a covert arm of the Republican Party, channeling cash into key races to tip the balance. "We see a pattern emerging . . . of radical right groups working hand in hand with Republican committees," declared Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1994.
In 1998 it was Rep. John Linder (Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who denounced the term-limits groups as "intellectually bankrupt." The groups "are willing to go on TV against a fellow [Goodling] who said `this is my last term' and use [issues] that have nothing to do with term limits," Linder said angrily last week.
Linder, along with such conservative leaders as Donald Hodel, head of the Christian Coalition, and Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, is also furious that the two term-limits groups have changed the rules by which they judge candidates.
In previous elections, the term-limits groups demanded that candidates sign a pledge to vote for a constitutional amendment limiting House terms to six years in order to win their backing. Having failed to win passage of the amendment, this election the term-limit groups are demanding that candidates take a personal pledge to serve only six years in exchange for their support.
The pledge to vote for a constitutional amendment has, according to Paul Jacob of U.S. Term Limits, "become a free pass for careerists for the past two Congresses. It basically allows them to say, `I'm for term limits,' " and continue to serve indefinitely. "What people want to know about candidates is what motivates them. Do they really just want to have a career as a big, powerful politician?" Jacob said.
Jacob noted that most public opinion surveys show strong support for term limits, and that among one key, swing group -- supporters of former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot -- "support for term limits is off the charts."
Most of the term-limit money is going into open-seat GOP primaries in which one or more of the candidates refused to sign the pledge. Goodling is the one Republican incumbent who the term limits groups have taken on, and their $300,000 television and radio campaign -- a lot of money in this district's low-dollar TV market -- has been brutal.
With Spirit of '76 music in the background of one of the ads, the announcer declares: "Right here a new nation was forged, a monarchy was overthrown. But today, 24-year incumbent Bill Goodling acts like the kings of old. He is as removed from the people as was the royalty of Europe. Goodling's career politician record is a living billboard for the need for congressional term limits."
The commercial goes on to charge that Goodling had broken a pledge to vote against tax hikes, that he "bounced more than 400 checks at the House bank" and that "he's accepted special interest paid junkets to the four corners of the world."
The ads play right into the hands of Goodling's primary opponent in this rock-ribbed Republican district, Charles Gerow, a conservative lawyer and part-time college professor who challenged Goodling in 1996 and won an unexpected 45 percent of the vote.
Gerow has hammered Goodling for failing to support full implementation of the anti-missile defense system, for opposing the death penalty and for supporting the 1997 budget agreement -- "the balanced budget postponement act of 1997," in Gerow's words.
Demonstrating the divide within the GOP, Gerow has the backing of conservative activist Paul Weyrich and such organizations on the right as Gary Bauer's Campaign for Working Families and the Conservative Victory Fund, while Goodling in recent years has won growing and loyal support from segments of the Christian right, especially those active in education issues,
Today at the York Christian School, Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition; John Holmes, government affairs director for the Association of Christian Schools International; and Carl Herbster, president of the American Association of Christian Schools, declared their support for Goodling. Letters backing Goodling from Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Form, and Carol Long, director of the National Right to Life PAC, also were released.
"You don't bench champions," said Herbster. "Just let him do his job and continue."
Sheldon criticized the basic assumption of the term-limits groups. "In six years, you barely get your feet wet." While conceding that term limits "can be good," Sheldon noted that another veteran incumbent has been crucial to conservative interests: Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), Judiciary Committee chairman.
"I don't know what we would have done without him," Sheldon said. "So if you have a person who champions a cause, the real issue is, let the people in the district who vote decide."
Goodling, according to sources in his campaign, faces an uphill fight winning reelection. An aide said that Goodling did not counterattack Gerow and "he just didn't want to raise the money. He is still back there someplace, and this is 1998 and there is a flood of money coming into the district" -- primarily from the term-limits groups.
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