The strength of the grassroots term-limits movement comes from the fact that Washington is simply out of touch with middle America. But we are listening. We hear you. . . . House Republicans respect the rights of the states and respect the rights of citizens to limit the terms of their elected officials.
-- The "Contract with America"
THIS WAS supposed to be the day that a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of members of Congress finally came to a vote in the US House of Representatives. Instead, Republican leaders will announce that the vote has been postponed until March 27. Good thing, too. If term limits had been voted on today, they would have crashed in defeat. The culprit would have been none other than the Republican leadership itself, most of whose members would be delighted to see the whole term-limits issue evaporate.
These are the same Republican leaders who made term limits a pillar of the "Contract with America." Was that just a political ploy, not meant to be taken seriously?
Well, voters do take term limits seriously. Nothing in the Contract has wider support. Limits have so far been enacted in 22 states, 21 of them by ballot petition. After Mississippi voters adopt them this year, every state with a ballot-initiative process will have capped the terms of its congressional delegation.
Term limits have tremendous momentum and resonance. They are the most important phenomenon in modern US politics. The Contract's promise -- term limits that will "replace career politicians with citizen legislators" -- captures precisely the electorate's desire for a more open and accountable Congress, where members come to serve, not to stay.
Unfortunately, that's not what Republican leaders desire.
One week after last November's election, Richard Armey, soon to be the House majority leader, lofted a trial balloon on abandoning the term-limits promise. "If we Republicans can straighten out the House," he told an NPR interviewer, ". . . then I think maybe the nation's desire for term limits will be diminished." The balloon was instantly shot down by a fusillade of criticism, and Armey ate his words. But it is clear that entrenched Beltway Republicans detest term limits just as much as entrenched Beltway Democrats did.
The House majority whip, Tom DeLay of Texas, opposes limits. So does his Senate counterpart, Trent Lott of Mississippi. Ditto the GOP Conference chairman, John Boehner of Ohio, and the vice chairman, Susan Molinari of New York. And the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. As columnist Robert Novak puts it, "The 'Contract with America' clause most popular with Republican voters . . . is least popular with Republican politicians."
Predictably, then, the term limits amendment that came out of House Judiciary was pathetic. It would have "limited" members of Congress to 12 consecutive years, then let them serve another 12 after sitting out one term. Worse, it would have specifically preempted any state law limiting House members to fewer than 12 years, which is exactly what 19 of the 22 state laws do. (The Massachusetts limit, passed last year, is eight years.)
The reaction was immediate, explosive and negative.
"I am beginning to think some congressmen signed the Contract with disappearing ink," fumed Paul Jacob, executive director of US Term Limits. Cleta Mitchell of the Term Limits Legal Institute called it "business as usual -- members of Congress doing everything necesary to protect their federal subsidy: permanent careers in Washington."
The grass-roots term-limits groups around the country went ballistic. And GOP freshmen, the soul of the new Congress, made it clear that they would not join in crippling or watering down the promised term-limits amendment.
"Anyone who believes that states ought to have their rights respected," Tennessee Rep. Van Hilleary avowed last Friday, "and anyone who has respect for the people who stood in parking lots and collected signatures to get term limits passed, could not go along with this."
In the face of such uproar, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Armey had no choice but to junk Judiciary's language and put off the vote. They now propose an amendment restricting members of Congress to 12 years -- max -- but keeping silent on the question of preempting state law. That way, they figure, the door is left open for the courts to invalidate more stringent state limits.
But Republicans true to the Contract will support a competing version offered by Hilleary and other freshmen and endorsed by a host of grass-roots organizations, including Ross Perot's. It, too, caps House terms at 12 years. But unlike the leaders' amendment, Hilleary's explicitly guarantees the right of any state to establish a shorter maximum -- just as the Contract says.
If GOP leaders didn't really want term limits, or didn't want them set by the states, they shouldn't have put them in the Contract. But they did. And they dare not take a dive on the issue now. It is the most powerful plank in the Republican platform. If that plank is breached, voters won't forget.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)