Exit Interviews

Do term limits matter? Just ask Congress’ quitters.

Does anyone remember the mania for term limits, the quaint idea that legislators ought to be citizens who hold political office for relatively short periods of time? A few years back, term limits were hotter than July and widely perceived as a structural cure for Big Government.

Away from Washington, the term-limits movement has been a huge success. Eighteen states have enacted term limits on their legislators; tellingly, all but two of the laws came about via ballot initiatives. This year alone, 380 state legislators will leave office due to term limits.

At the national level, however, the story is very different. Twenty-three states limited their congressional delegations, but a 1995 Supreme Court decision declared such laws unconstitutional, reasoning that only the federal government could set additional qualifications for service in Congress. Not surprisingly, Congress couldn’t quite muster the votes to do this and term limits ended up being the only item in 1994’s Contract with America that the House failed to pass. This summer, even the Republicans, who had once championed the idea, dropped the term-limits plank from their official party platform.

So when it comes to Congress, it’s up to individual legislators to limit themselves–and there seems to be less and less pressure on them to do so. Things were very different in the early ’90s: Twenty-two freshmen elected to the House in 1994 promised to serve no more than three terms, and a handful elected in 1992 had vowed to serve no more than four terms. The most notable was a nobody from the state of Washington, George R. Nethercutt, who beat then—House Speaker Thomas S. Foley in 1994 by painting him as "a creature of Washington D.C., born and raised in the system."

Surprise: Nethercutt’s six years are up and he’s found D.C. to be quite an agreeable town. So he’s broken his promise. Two other congressmen have turned similar vows into lies. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) decided a life in D.C. suits him well. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), one of two Democrats who pledged self-control in 1992, has similarly concluded that his district needs his services on a continuing basis. (In declining to be interviewed for this piece, a spokesman says the congressman has "moved on" from the issue.) Interestingly, such backsliders are the exception. To date, 15 of the 18 self-limiters whose clocks have expired have either already honored their pledges or will this November, when seven House members will not stand for re-election.

This summer, Reason Washington Editor Michael W. Lynch and Reason D.C. summer intern Katherine Mangu-Ward visited with five of the seven leavers–Reps. Charles Canady, Helen Chenoweth-Hage, Tom Coburn, Matt Salmon, and Mark Sanford–and talked about their time in Congress, the merits of limited service, and their plans for the future. All display uncommon principle by voluntarily leaving Congress, and for that, they deserve no small measure of respect. At the same time, they make a strong case, often unintentionally, for relief that they are leaving office–and greater discomfort with the colleagues they leave behind.

Mr. Reluctant
Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.)

Charles Canady is a professional politician raised in a political family. At the relatively tender age of 30, he entered the Florida House as a Democrat, switched parties in 1989, and lost a run for the state Senate in 1990.

In a sense, Canady marks the success of term limits. Unlike others who are philosophically committed to term limits, Canady took the pledge to advance his political career. Elected to represent the Sunshine State’s 12th District in 1992, Canady pledged to serve just four terms. At the time, there was a term-limit initiative on the Florida ballot for which Canady expressed support. Somebody suggested he pledge to limit himself regardless of the initiative’s fate. "So that’s what I did," says Canady.

Canady claims term limits haven’t affected his voting record or positions. He has worked on lobbying reform and religious liberty issues. In a decidedly less freedom-loving moment, he also supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which was designed to deny gay marriages equal standing to heterosexual unions. He also served as a House impeachment manager and was the leading House opponent to racial preferences in government contracting and hiring.

Though done with Congress, Canady’s hardly done with politics: His next stop is a role in Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration.

Reason: Did the term-limits pledge make you a different congressman?

Charles Canady: I can’t point to anything that I did specifically because I knew I was term-limited. But it does keep things in perspective. It helps you remember that what goes on here inside the Beltway is not all there is of reality.

Reason: What’s the most absurd program you’ve come across in your time in Congress?

Canady: That would probably be a tough call. The problem is that every program has some constituency in favor of it.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.