Breach of Contract

March 28, 1995

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives comes eyeball to eyeball with reality this week. We predict it will blink. Members must vote on imposing term limits on themselves. They won't.

This breach of the "Contract with America" will come on one of four versions of term limits representatives will vote on. It is a Democratic version, designed to reveal to the nation just how phony the contract is, at least on this issue. It mandates a 12-year lifetime limit on service in the House -- and it is retroactive.

Speaker Newt Gingrich made term limits a principal selling point in his campaign for a Republican majority. When asked if the term limits clause in the Contract with America was retroactive, he would admit it was not. But he avoided the question whenever he could. Now when asked about the lack of support for term limits in the House, he says he didn't know when he was championing it that Republicans would be in the majority in the House. Think about that.

Not only is the speaker not going to push through a retroactive term limits resolution. He probably is going to fail to get approved any of three variations that only apply to the future, that would not cause his -- and his senior colleagues' -- forced retirements. He implicitly acknowledged that he lacked the votes the other day. He told a town meeting last week, "We need a lot of phone calls next Monday and Tuesday if we're going to pass term limits."

No matter how many phone calls are made, none of the term limits resolutions is going to get enough votes. All are in the form of a constitutional amendment. That means the speaker needs a two-thirds vote to send it to the Senate. There is no way he can get 290 or so votes. He is expected to get a majority, but many of those votes will come from members who know they won't prevail.

Term limits is such a ridiculous idea that we have never understood why so many otherwise reasonable Americans seem to support it. We know there is an anti-politics mood in America, but term limits would not replace bad politics with good politics. It would replace bad politics with non-politics. There would be no term limits on lobbyists or Washington lawyers or bureaucrats in the executive and legislative branches (or Washington correspondents). So what? So this, in the words of Sen. Mitch McConnell, a conservative Republican from Kentucky: "In government, knowledge is power, and congressional term limits would ensure that more of it is vested in staff, bureaucrats, the judiciary and lobbyists, rather than in the people's representatives."

For over 200 years the American people have had a contract with their public servants which calls for elected representatives to govern. Let's keep it that way.

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