Putting Politics Before Principle

When term-limits advocates won't leave


When Republican Helen Chenoweth ran for Congress in Idaho in 1994, she not only endorsed term limits on members but pledged she would leave Washington after three terms no matter what. But something strange happened in 2000, when it was time for Chenoweth to step down: She did it.

What was she thinking?

In 2000, when Republican Timothy Johnson ran for Congress in a central Illinois district, he promised he would serve a maximum of six years. Voters may have been skeptical, since Johnson had spent the previous 24 years in the Illinois Legislature, but he was adamant.

"There's a lot of opportunity for disconnect if you stay too long in Washington," he declared. "I'm still a citizen legislator now. Having term limits would make you more responsive to your constituents, rather than to bureaucrats." That vow may have been the difference in the election, which he won with 53 percent of the vote.

But the citizen legislator has since made the transition to congressman-for-life. He announced in 2002, during an easy re-election race, that he had thought the matter over and decided it would be better for his constituents if he took the paper his promise was written on and lit a match to it.

"I've got to say in all candor, the innate advantages that an incumbent member of Congress has, particularly after redistricting, are really pretty dramatic," he confessed. He was also perceptive enough to notice that there were advantages for him personally: "When I go to Carmi or I go to South Streator, you're a celebrity."

Johnson, however, has plenty of company on Capitol Hill. In 2006, there were nine House Republicans who once vowed to leave after the coming election but later decided they'd rather stay. Former U.S. Term Limits spokesman Paul Jacob, who in 2000 made a campaign appearance with Johnson, says that in all, at least 25 members of Congress (not all Republicans) have broken such promises.

This brings to mind Lily Tomlin's remark: "No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up." When Republicans managed to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years in the minority, they owed the victory in large part to their support for term limits, an idea that was much in vogue. Better yet for them, they got the benefits of that bargain without ever having to subject themselves to it.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that congressional tenure could not be curbed except by constitutional amendment. And as it happened, enough House Republicans voted against a constitutional amendment to scotch that option once and for all.

But that didn't necessarily kill the entire concept. The fact that term limits can't be imposed by statute does not mean they can't be self-imposed—as they were by so many House candidates when they first ran. The Supreme Court decision, however, gives these Republicans a way to justify a change of heart. Stepping down, you see, would amount to unilateral disarmament that would help Democrats regain a majority.

It's a brilliant excuse whose only disadvantage is that it isn't true. Of the nine turncoats who chose to run this year, eight got 60 percent or more of the vote in 2004. The other, Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, won by a comfortable 13-point margin.

Most of them occupy seats carefully drawn to keep them in GOP hands until the twelfth of never. The obvious exception is Cubin, whose district consists of the whole state of Wyoming—which President Bush carried with 69 percent of the vote the last go-round.

So it would be no sacrifice to the party if these lawmakers all stepped down. They could keep their promises, and the Republicans could hang on to their seats. But here's the thing: They don't want to leave.

They have come up with lots of rationalizations for sticking around. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., had the best one: "I still don't plan on staying forever, but after Sept. 11, I felt like I should renew my commitment to public service."

That's one way term-limits champions could make the case for abandoning the commitment they made when it was politically advantageous. Or they could try the explanation once offered to a lobbyist by Louisiana Gov. Earl Long about a campaign promise he didn't keep: "Tell them I lied."


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. This column was originally published in 2006.