All That Can Be Said for Term Limits
By David S. Broder
The outcome of the Senate debate on the term-limits constitutional amendment was the same as it had been last year in the House of Representatives. Majorities on both sides of the Capitol approved limits of 12 years for future legislators, but fell well short of the two-thirds margin needed to send the amendment to the states for ratification.
The Senate debate was useful because the case for term limits was extremely well argued -- which it had not been in the House in 1995. The two Tennessee freshman Republicans, Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, with notable support from retiring Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) and another freshman, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), were well prepared, while the Senate opponents, knowing that they had the votes to block the amendment, barely bothered to make the counterarguments.
As a result, the paradoxes of the proponents' brief were left vividly on display. Thompson, the able lawyer who led off the debate, paid the standard obeisance to the fact that term limits enjoy wide popular support -- three out of four people in the polls and majorities in every state and city where they have been placed on the ballot. But he quickly moved beyond the banality of suggesting that the fundamental charter of the Republic should be amended to satisfy what may be a transitory popular demand.
Rather, he focused on the federal deficit, "the most dire fiscal problem that this country has ever faced," and suggested that careerism in politicians is to blame for the fact that "as a working government, we cannot get to first base in solving" that problem.
"Because of our desire not ever to say no to anybody because that could endanger our career," Thompson said, politicians of both parties are spending the United States into ruin. Ambition, and the focus on the next election, have weakened the moral fiber of Congress, he said. "Our problem is the lack of will to do what we know somebody, either us or our successors, will have to do" to avoid fiscal ruin.
This is a serious argument, worthy of a constitutional debate. But does it stand scrutiny?
First, it has been "career politicians" in both parties who have led the efforts in the 1990s to overcome the ruinous budget policies of the 1980s. The leaders of that effort in Thompson's own party are career politicians, notably Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici of New Mexico and House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich of Ohio. And let's not forget what longtime Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton and Leon Panetta did in cutting the deficit the first two years of this administration.
All of them somehow overcame the paralysis of will that term-limits advocates say is produced in people who are eager for reelection, and together they have moved the drive against deficits well past first base. But the even more striking example is provided by the man Thompson cited as his authority for saying that the budget could still cause huge problems: Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). Kerrey was the chairman of a bipartisan commission that in 1994 laid out the fearsome implications of runaway spending on the three major entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Thompson properly saluted his work. But he did not observe that Kerrey did it at exactly the same time he was running for reelection against a serious and well-financed opponent. If campaigning is somehow incompatible with courage on fiscal affairs, how do you explain Kerrey?
Or, for that matter, how to explain Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who in his speech supporting term limits, made the point that he had shouted out the same criticisms of senior-citizens' lobbies when he was running for reelection a few years ago that he is making now, on the eve of his retirement?
What all these examples show is that if a politician has courage, he will carry it into a campaign -- and not jettison it as a burden. Shortening his career will not give a spineless pol a backbone transplant.
The proposition that the term-limits advocates ask us to accept is that by shortening the tenure of people in office, we will lengthen their perspective. Those who serve briefly, they say, will give greater weight to the long-term needs of the nation. The evidence for that belief is conspicuous by its absence.
And their corollary argument -- that the longer they serve, the less courage politicians show -- is demonstrably false. No one showed more courage than former speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), a 30-year veteran, did in 1994, in defying the views of his constituents and opposing term limits. He paid for it in defeat, but he served his conscience and his country.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company