As analysts continue to draw comparisons between the Republican Revolution in 1994 and brewing discontent with Democrats going into this year’s midterm elections, here’s another parallel to ponder: term limits.
Though seldom acknowledged by the Republican Party establishment, calls for term-limiting politicians have been a consistent undercurrent of the tea party movement. Activists are tired of professional politicians opening the barnyard door for special interests to feed at the stimulus trough — and equally tired of those incumbents spending half-a-century doing it. Short of voting the bums out, they see term limits as the next best option.
The same sentiment arose in 1994 when term limits became a core plank of the Contract With America. A year after re-taking Congress, Republicans tried to pass a constitutional amendment limiting lawmakers’ tenure in office to a 12-year maximum — six terms for representatives and two terms for senators. Aided by 40 Republicans who voted no, the amendment fell well short of the required two-thirds majority.
A few months later, the U.S. Supreme Court put an exclamation mark on the loss by ruling that states couldn’t impose term limits on federal officeholders. In the meantime, Republican enthusiasm sputtered as the GOP found itself the establishment party and tasted the sweetness of entrenched incumbency. For practical purposes, the movement died.
Could it make a comeback this year? It’s doubtful. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, has introduced a constitutional amendment akin to the Republican Revolution version. It would limit representatives to three two-year terms and senators to three six-year terms. The proposal was relegated to the House Judiciary Committee, where it will die a quiet death with dignity.
Tea partiers gunning for a thorough congressional purge still have reason to hope — if not for mandatory term limits, at least the voluntary brand. Prompted by the wave of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the nation, candidates are increasingly following in the footsteps of George Washington by self-limiting their tenure in office.
Bonded term limits are an innovative way of doing that. The Alliance for Bonded Term Limits, a national nonpartisan group based in North Carolina, is spearheading the effort. It encourages candidates vying for elected office to put their money where their mouth is by promising to stay in office a maximum of three terms or forfeit a hefty chunk of their net worth.
Five congressional candidates, all Republicans, have signed the pledge, and others are in the pipeline. “This is a politician’s word, integrity, and ethics on the line,” said alliance president John Skvarla.
The movement has the potential to pick up steam as November looms. Democrats’ fiasco-style government over the last two years, and Republicans’ disastrous years of governing leading up to 2006, inextricably link career politicians with a corruption that’s often blind to party and ideological identity. Vice tends to follow concentrated power more than anything else.
Not every long-time lawmaker is scandal-ridden, inept, or sleazy. But chances are higher they will be. Consider some of the longest serving: Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Ted Stevens, and Patrick Leahy. Need I write more?
Bonded term limits have the added benefit of cutting off any weasel room. Scores of Republicans have broken their term limit pledges over the years and paid no political price. Reneging on a pledge backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars would hurt far more.
The idea does have downsides. Principled statesmen would be limited in their impact and couldn’t stay in office as long as we’d like. Reforms would be needed to ensure lawmakers aren’t given cushy health-care plans and pensions after a short time in office.
Critics also see fundamental problems. Ambitious pols could just pony up the cash at the end of their three terms. In most cases, though, it’s doubtful they could be re-elected after reneging on such a monumental promise. At the very least, doing so would hand their opponents a ready-made attack ad.
Political dynamics in Washington make getting a term-limits constitutional amendment passed impossible. But if the movement can gain traction, bonded term limits would be a decent second-best option, and it might lead, one day, to more thorough reforms. Tea partiers should demand it.