Term Limits Run Strong in 14 States
By Bill McAllister
According to election surveys, upwards of 70 percent of the voters in the 14 states say they are likely to approve ballot initiatives Nov. 3 that typically will limit their senators to two six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms.
Term-limit advocates say their movement is nothing less than a frontal assault on Congress and its seniority system, which long has dictated how power is apportioned on Capitol Hill.
"Rome never was worse than this," said Michigan term-limit leader Richard H. Headlee.
In California, another state considering congressional term limits, pollster Mervin Field was stunned by the 4 to 1 support he recently found for the proposal there. "I call it a bad idea whose time has come," he said.
"Once you get them on the ballot, they will pass," said Thomas E. Mann, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "It is a very strong movement and it is drawing on a genuine antipathy toward government."
No one knows that better than Headlee, an insurance executive and a 1982 candidate for Michigan governor. "I could take the next 435 people riding by on the freeway out here and have a better Congress than we have now," he recently told his group, Citizens to Vote Yes on Proposal B.
And if Michigan has to bid farewell to some of its most entrenched legislators on Capitol Hill? "In order to get a lot of good, you sacrifice a little good," Headlee said.
The Michigan clock would start running in 1993, giving all House members up to three more terms. The end of "clout" would have profound consequences for congressional delegations.
"For us, it's like unilateral disarmament in the face of Russia . . . an act of great folly," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "These dunderheads," as Dingell brands the proponents of term limits, fail to understand how much Michigan would lose and how much a megastate like California would gain under the proposal.
But it is a reflection of Congress's low esteem that term-limit advocates have had little difficulty here or elsewhere in convincing voters that their proposal is a good idea. It is also a reflection of the proposals' appeal that some longtime members of Congress -- among them Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) -- have endorsed the idea and that few officials, including 37-year House veteran Dingell, are actively campaigning against it this fall.
Paul Weyrich, the president of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, thinks the term-limit movement reflects a basic change in public attitude toward Washington. "People for the last 20 years have been saying Congress is dreadful and my congressman is wonderful. Now people have come to the opposite conclusion: My congressman is dreadful."
In few places is that change more dramatic than in Michigan, where Dingell's seniority has made him, in words of the Detroit Free Press, "a superpower in Washington." Term-limit proponents ridicule "the duchy of Dingell" and argue that his relationship with the Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Co. has made him a public policy villain.
Dingell supported legislation this year that would have extended Upjohn's patent on Ansaid, an anti-arthritic drug. The measure would have allowed the pharmaceutical company to continue to generate millions of dollars in sales by extending its monopoly rights to the drug.
As Dingell was championing that measure in the House, his wife, Deborah Dingell, a General Motors executive, was putting together a coalition of business and union groups to fight the term-limit proposal in Michigan. Chief among its members was Upjohn chairman and chief executive Theodore Cooper.
"Such a cozy deal," said Steve Mitchell, a Republican campaign consultant who is running the term-limit campaign here. He said the legislation was worth $300 million to Upjohn. The company PAC and other pharmaceutical firm PACs had given $115,000 in campaign contributions to Dingell and four others.
Dingell fumes at the charge. "You could just tell them they are liars," he snapped, saying he supported Upjohn long before term limits got on the Michigan ballot. Upjohn spokesman John Butler acknowledged that the company has supported Dingell and he said Cooper's role in the movement against term limits "was not a quid pro quo."
"We at Upjohn have been able to enjoy the advantages of a Michigan delegation with seniority," Butler said. "They know how to get things done."
The Upjohn drug bill, however, died in the Senate.
Term limitation is hardly a new idea. U.S. Term Limits, a Washington-based group, describes it as "the Founding Fathers' unfinished business" and notes that a South Carolina representative introduced the first term-limit legislation in 1789. Since then, it says, there have been more than 140 other term-limit bills, but never a House vote on the issue. The Senate voted on term limits in 1947 and the idea was rejected, 82 to 1, the organization said.
Only Colorado has voted to impose term limits on its congressional delegation; the Colorado limits take effect in 2002. Last year, in a widely watched race, Washington state voters rejected a similar proposal after a last-minute tour of the state by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). He warned that the state's diminished Capitol Hill clout would allow thirsty California to siphon off Washington water.
The issue has returned to Washington state, and this time Foley is "less active than two years ago," spokesman Jeffrey Biggs said. Foley addresses the issue "when asked," Biggs said.
This election, term-limit advocates say they have something new: public dismay over the scandals in the House Bank and the House Post Office. "I have to tell you that the check-bouncing scandal was an absolute gift, an absolute gift," Headlee said. "It's something people can relate to."
"In the smaller states, it's a fait accompli," said James K. Coyne III, a one-term GOP House member from Pennsylvania who heads the McLean-based Americans to Limit Congressional Terms.
There is, however, a major constitutional issue at stake: whether states can impose limits on the terms of federal lawmakers.
Term-limit supporters argue they can, and cite Article IV of the Constitution, which allows states to regulate the "time, place and manner" of congressional elections.
A number of experts in constitutional law dispute that argument. "There are many difficult questions, but this is not one of them," said Duke University law Professor Walter Dellinger. "The qualifications to run for Congress are set by the Constitution and, short of a constitutional amendment, the states have no authority to establish additional qualifications."
In September, the Nevada Supreme Court accepted that argument and threw a term-limit proposal off the state's Nov. 3 ballot. In a 3 to 2 decision, the court likened the proposal to a straw vote. "Elections in this state are not games or straw votes," the majority said.
"This is a big charade," said University of Virginia law Professor John Calvin Jefferies Jr., who argued the Nevada case.
Some term-limit proponents, including President Bush, agree that an amendment to the Constitution may be needed to limit terms. That could happen, Coyne argued. "Next year, we'll bring 30 senators and 130 House members to Congress from states with term limits," enough to force the issue to a vote in Congress, he predicted.
Dingell and others argue that term limits are irrelevant. "We have term limits now," he said. "If the voters don't like what I am doing, they have a chance to limit my term every two years."
Fourteen states have proposals on the ballot to limit the number of years served by state officials and/or members of Congress. Colorado is the only state now with congressional limits, two 6-year terms for Senate, six 2-year terms for House.
State..........House limit.........Senate limit
Arizona........6 years.............12 years
SOURCES: Associated Press, news reports
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