House Rejects Measures to Require Term Limits
By Kenneth J. Cooper
None of the four versions for limits of six or 12 years came close to winning the two-thirds majority needed to move a constitutional amendment toward approval by the states. Despite last night's outcome, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) vowed to bring term limits to a Senate vote anyway, probably in June.
The version that got the most votes, a 12-year limit that would take effect once ratified by 38 states, barely received support from a simple majority on a vote of 227 to 204. It fell 61 votes short of the required two-thirds.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was first elected in 1978, concluded a long day of debate with a rare floor speech and threatened to punish Democrats in the 1996 elections for blocking term limits.
"I believe this is a historic vote," Gingrich said. "I've been, frankly, surprised by our friends on the left. I would have thought -- having been defeated last fall for the first time in 40 years -- that paying some attention to the American people would have been useful."
Just holding the term limit votes met the narrow promise of the Republicans' campaign contract, but the defeat marked the House's first rejection of one of its provisions after it had approved eight in a row.
In the first term limits vote, the House overwhelmingly defeated, 297 to 135, a Democratic proposal for a retroactive limit of 12 years that would make senior lawmakers leave after ratification.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a term limits opponent first elected in 1954, dubbed the Democratic version "the real thing" because it would affect sitting lawmakers sooner. Critics denounced it as "a poison pill" designed to kill the term limits movement.
A lifetime limit of six years that would not count prior service, sponsored by two-term Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), was defeated by a wider margin, 316 to 114. Term limits activists have favored a six-year limit, but veteran lawmakers said that would not allow enough time for members to master the workings of government.
A 12-year limit with a state option of imposing shorter periods, proposed by freshman Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), was rejected on a vote of 265 to 164. Some activists favored the Hilleary version because it specifically would leave intact limits that 22 states have already approved for their own delegations.
On the final vote, a straight 12-year limit offered by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) was supported by 189 Republicans and 38 Democrats, but opposed by 163 Democrats, 40 Republicans and one independent.
Republicans took political credit for just bringing the subject to the floor. Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), a two-term lawmaker who is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, said that before yesterday, none of the 180 proposals for congressional term limits introduced since Congress first met in 1789 had seen floor action.
The term limits debate, which despite its historic nature lacked drama or much doubt about the outcome, roughly divided the House along party and generational lines. Supporters were primarily Republicans and newcomers, while Democrats and senior lawmakers largely made up the opposition.
Term limit supporters said they had public opinion on their side, citing polls that consistently have found almost four of five voters supporting mandatory limits on service in Congress. Popular support, McCollum said, "may be reason enough to enact them."
Nine-term Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) disagreed, saying, "Sometimes the American people are simply wrong."
Since 1990, 22 states have unilaterally adopted term limits for their congressional delegations -- by ballot initiative in 21 of them. The Supreme Court could decide in a pending Arkansas case whether states have authority under the Constitution to set what critics consider another qualification for serving in Congress.
"It is clear that voters want more than the party in power to change," Canady said. "The people want the power structure in Washington to change. . . . Will we or will we not listen to the American people?"
Slightly more than half of the House's 435 members and almost a third of the 100-member Senate have been elected since 1990. Last November, Republicans captured control of both bodies for the first time in more than 40 years. The term limits issue figured in the first defeat since 1862 of a House speaker: Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), a 30-year lawmaker who opposed term limits and blocked a House vote.
"American voters . . . already have the power to impose term limits," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who arrived with Foley in 1965. "I do not think it is a good idea to deny these voters the right to elect the person they think best represents their interests."
Dingell, whose 40 years in the House make him its longest continuously serving member, said current House members have served an average of 7.5 years and senators an average of 10 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), first elected in 1974, cited the value of congressional experience that long-serving senators from both parties had brought to past national crises. He mentioned Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.), Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.), Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) and Sam Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.).
"You don't find them in a phone book," Hyde said.
Inglis, who has promised to serve only six years, responded to Hyde's speech with sharp criticisms of how Congress has performed on major issues in recent years.
"Experience at what? Balancing the budget?" Inglis asked. "The arrogance of this place is showing. . . . We want you to get rid of you; that is what they are telling you with term limits."
Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), in her second term, said that term limits would make Congress "closer to the people" and "reduce the power of staff, since the most powerful staffers are always those who work for the most senior members."
Fowler also suggested that automatic turnover of Congress would further the recent trend toward a more demographically diverse membership because 72 percent of female and 81 percent of minority lawmakers were elected to open seats.
McCollum said term limits would end a careerism that has squeezed out "citizen legislators." The ban on lawmakers' earning outside income, intended as a ethics reform, instead has made them cling to public office and "please every interest group" to get reelected, he said.
Some term limit advocates have urged Congress to vote on a statute to authorize the states to restrict the tenure of their own representatives. Such a law would be of questionable constitutionality, but would need only a simple majority vote.
Gingrich, a supporter of 12-year limits, promised that the House would revisit the issue once the Supreme Court rules on state-imposed limits.
In the Senate, first-term Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) said he hoped Dole would schedule votes on both a constitutional amendment and a term limits statute. The Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed a lifetime limit of 12 years each for the House and Senate.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
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