Move to 'throw rascals out' keeps growing

ON POLITICS

November 18, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- All through House Speaker Tom Foley's unsuccessful campaign for re-election in the face of the concerted drive to defeat him by advocates of congressional term limits, he argued that the best term-limits device was the ballot box. If you didn't like the job your congressman was doing, Foley said, you had a chance every two years to throw him out.

After passing up that chance in 15 straight elections, voters in his district in Washington state unceremoniously ditched Foley on Nov. 8 in favor of political newcomer George Nethercutt, who ran head-on against the seniority issue that gave Foley his great power in Congress. "I want to be a listener, not a speaker," he said repeatedly.

The issue of term limits was particularly significant in the Foley-Nethercutt election because Foley had joined a suit to challenge term limits approved by the voters in a statewide referendum. Nethercutt successfully argued that Foley in effect was "suing his own constituents" just to stay in power.

Foley's campaign argument that the best way to limit an incumbent's term was the old-fashioned way -- simply voting him or her out of office -- certainly did the job on Nov. 8, not only in his case, but in those involving 34 other House incumbents and two senators -- all fellow Democrats.

Opponents of term limits on members of Congress are pointing to these results as confirmation that the system of regular elections -- every two years in the House, every six in the Senate -- remains adequate to get rid of bad or at least unwanted apples in the barrel. And it doesn't require also tossing the best ones away after the imposed limits -- six years in the House, 12 in the Senate as most proposals stipulate -- are reached.

But if the term-limits foes hope the Nov. 8 defeats of 37 congressional incumbents is going to slow the drive for putting a mandatory cap on service, they are engaged in wishful thinking. Rather, says Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a leading advocate organization, the election results only confirm how far the movement has yet to go.

He observes that while the re-election rate of incumbents may have slipped slightly, it is still overwhelming. In the 1990 )R congressional elections, he says, 98 percent of incumbents were returned to office. On Nov. 8, that figure was "only" 91 percent for the House and 92 percent for the Senate, underscoring that retention of entrenched national legislators continues to be the rule.

Nevertheless, Jacob notes, of the 35 House members defeated, 23 of them were opposed by candidates who, like Nethercutt, made term limits an integral part of their challenges. Also, he says, on a state-by-state basis the term-limits movement is advancing inexorably. Voters this fall in seven more states approved the imposition of term limits on their members of Congress, bringing the total to 23. A term-limits initiative is on the ballot in Mississippi for next year, he says, and others are being considered in at least five other states.

A critical event in the fight will come on Nov. 29, when the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal to a 1992 Arkansas case in which a state court ruled that a referendum establishing term limits for Arkansas congressmen and senators was unconstitutional. The court held that the only qualifications for service were age, residence in the state and American citizenship, as specified in the Constitution.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of term limits, Jacob says, many other states will fall in line, putting pressure on members of Congress to vote the limits on themselves. If the ruling goes against the limits, he says, "I think we get term limits anyway" because the campaign for a constitutional amendment will be intensified.

Many members of Congress, including Henry Hyde, the No. 2 Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, have opposed term limits in the past. But the message from voters and the push planned by prospective House Speaker Newt Gingrich, may produce enough converts for the two-thirds vote in each house that would clear a constitutional amendment for ratification by three-fourths of the states.

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