Is There an Excuse for George Nethercutt?


National Journal, August 12, 2000

This November, the most important election in the country will be the one between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The second most important will be—you say Hillary vs. Rick for the open New York Senate seat? Good guess, but no. The race that puts a fundamental principle most clearly at stake is the contest in Washington's 5th Congressional District, which is represented by a Republican named George Nethercutt.

In 1994, Nethercutt, then a politically unknown lawyer, challenged Thomas S. Foley, the Democratic Speaker of the House. Term limits were a key issue. Washington state had passed a law limiting its House members' service to six years, and its Senators' to 12. Foley, who believed the measure was unconstitutional, filed suit against it and won. Foley's lawsuit against his own state's term limits tarred him back home as the ultimate Washington insider.

Enter Nethercutt. He decried Foley as "a creature of Washington, D.C., born and raised in that system." He said the campaign was about changing the system in Washington. He ran as an advocate of the term limits that Foley opposed. In November 1994, The New York Times reported that Nethercutt "played up his inexperience in government, saying he wanted to return to something closer to the part-time Congress of old."

To drive the point home, he promised to serve only for six years. […] For years, his Web site declared: "Term limits was one of the defining issues of my 1994 campaign."

About a year ago, that statement disappeared from the congressman's site. In June 1999, Nethercutt announced he would run for a fourth term.

In 1994, Nethercutt was a poster child for term limit activists. When he broke his promise, a group called U.S. Term Limits went on the warpath. The group threw back at Nethercutt all sorts of things he had said, such as this statement aimed at Bill Clinton, from August 1998: "Your word is your bond, whether it's your public life or your private life. The honorable thing for him to do is to resign."

Perhaps more consequentially, U.S. Term Limits is also spending heavily against Nethercutt—an amount in the six figures, although nothing approaching the $1 million reported in the press, according to Paul Jacob, the group's national director. Jacob says that Nethercutt is one of three House members running this year in defiance of their promises to step down; the other two are Scott McInnis, R-Colo., and Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass. (Seven other members are keeping their promises to quit.)

That Nethercutt, by breaking his promise, has committed one of the most brazen political betrayals of our time is too obvious to be interesting. More interesting is the question: Is there a case for his betrayal?

Nethercutt himself has offered all sorts of arguments. Some of them are pathetic, as when he said (to The Washington Post) that he had "blurted out" his promise in 1994. Others are irrelevant, as when he told The American Spectator, "I feel I have to finish the work I started." (He did not promise, in 1994, to stay until he felt he was finished.) Some are crass, as when he told The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer that in 1994, "I didn't realize I'd be in the majority. I didn't realize I'd be on the Appropriations Committee. That means something for our district—not for me, but for our district." (In 1994, he had said: "I understand the issue of pork, power, and productivity. But the world didn't fall apart 30 years ago when Walt Horan got defeated by a 35-year-old lawyer.") Still others are simply weird. "I'm less enamored with the idea of term limitations, and I'm the perfect example of why we don't need them," he told The Post. (I leave it to you to work that one out.)

Two other arguments, however, have real strength. One is that politicians who make ill-advised promises should be allowed to change their minds. The other is that if he quit, he would put at risk not only term limits but all other conservative causes, because the Republicans need every seat to maintain control of the House.

"I have changed my mind," Nethercutt said in a statement when he announced his decision last year. "I made a mistake when I chose to set a limit on my service." Politicians, he said, ought to admit and correct their mistakes. He told The Spectator: "Judge me on my record, my accomplishments, my honesty in admitting I made a mistake. I'm mortal."

Fair enough. If Nethercutt had campaigned on a promise never to accept a seat on the Appropriations Committee and then later had realized what an idiotic promise this was, surely he should be allowed to change his mind, explain himself to the voters, and take his chances with them. That does not seem dishonorable. It seems statesmanlike.

Yet somehow Nethercutt's change of mind does not seem very statesmanlike. One reason, possibly, is that it appears so obviously self-serving. For argument's sake, however, let us give Nethercutt the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really dislikes serving in Congress but stays there out of a sense of duty to his district and to his party. Another problem remains.

Incumbency offers enormous powers of entrenchment. Nethercutt beat an incumbent by running against entrenchment and now entrenches himself. That is not like, say, promising never to buy a bicycle and then changing your mind and buying one. It is like begging to borrow your friend's bicycle for only a few minutes and then deciding to keep the bike after riding away. That, perhaps, is what Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., was getting at when The Wall Street Journal asked him about Nethercutt last year: "This is the worst kind of lie to the people—you have traded this pledge for their vote."

Frank was subsequently asked whether the same went for another promise-breaker, Frank's fellow Massachusetts Democrat Meehan. Frank didn't flinch. Meehan, he said, should quit. So far as I know, Frank is the only member of Congress's ruling party—the Incumbents' Party—to take such a stand. The others, including those Republicans who bray against Bill Clinton's lack of honor and truthfulness, have maintained a deafening silence. In fact, the Republican leadership, fearful of losing seats, reportedly urged Nethercutt and other self-limiters to stay.

"This ought to bother people," William J. Bennett, the Republican grandee and former Reagan and Bush Administration official, told me. "I campaigned for Nethercutt in '94, and I liked him, I liked his ideas. But he's now acting dishonorably. He's breaking his word, and he's doing it without any apparent remorse. He's making people more cynical about politics. Some promises should not be kept, because circumstances change. But about the only circumstance that has changed here that seems to me to be relevant is that he has gotten to like where he is, and I don't think that's enough."

There is, however, a political circumstance that might be relevant: This year, control of the House hangs in the balance. From Republicans' point of view, keeping a promise but sacrificing a seat might be the moral victory that loses the war. Principles, as Washington cynics say, aren't much good if the party loses come election time.

Actually, it is not clear that Nethercutt is more likely to hold the seat than some other Republican candidate would be; his broken promise has made him vulnerable and drawn a primary opponent, though he is still favored to win in his Republican-leaning district. Nor is it clear that his seat would tip the balance in Congress. But grant both assumptions. The idea that Republicans need to condone promise-breaking in order to save conservatism from the Democrats would be more persuasive if the Republicans were, at the moment, saving conservatism from the Republicans.

The House Republicans were conservative for a while (1995 and 1996), and they are still conservative on such symbolic issues as abortion. But that is about the extent of it. Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute note that most of the programs that the Republicans swore to eliminate in 1995 have actually grown, and that the current Republican Congress has just chalked up the highest increase (11 percent) in real nondefense spending since—hold on—the Democrats under President Carter. That is the greater conservative good that Nethercutt's re-election would serve.

Given the way the Republicans are actually behaving, a more plausible explanation for their complicity with Nethercutt is that they like power and want to keep it. Not exactly shocking. But at least clarifying. Nethercutt and his Republican colleagues in Congress have become the beast that they promised to slay.