Hypocrites in the House

April 02, 1995

As he promised voters in the 2nd Congressional District he would do, Maryland Rep. Robert Ehrlich voted against term limits last week. It was an issue in his campaign last year for an open seat. His opponent favored limits. What makes Mr. Ehrlich's vote noteworthy is that he was one of only six freshmen Republicans out of 73 to vote "no."

It was, of course, the right vote. And the winning vote. Three of the four term-limits proposals voted on did not even get a majority, much less the two-thirds necessary for a constitutional amendment. The one version that got a majority fell 61 votes short of two-thirds.

Debate on term limits provoked one of those comic-opera scenes Congress so often provides for C-SPAN viewers. A supporter, Rep. Martin Hoke, R-Ohio, called an opponent, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a "hypocrite" for sponsoring one of the term limits proposals. This produced a lengthy procedural debate, since calling a member a name is against House rules.

But Representative Dingell clearly was hypocritical to propose his version, which would apply retroactively. And Representative Hoke and many other Republicans, including Speaker Newt Gingrich, were clearly also hypocritical to oppose it while favoring versions that would not apply to their own time already served. The retroactive version failed by better than two-to-one, 135-297.

We have never had sympathy for term limits, but we do agree with Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., who refuted arguments that since there are House elections every two years, that alone offers voters the opportunity to limit terms. Only in principle. Incumbents have too many campaign advantages, as he argued, citing perquisites such as free mailings. There are also large personal staffs, including writers and de facto political aides, WATS lines and broadcast facilities, stationery, travel funds and the like.

Some claimed in debate that term limits are needed because incumbents are out of touch. In a sense, that's wrong. Because of those perks, incumbents are too much in touch with voters, in ways that few challengers can afford to match. The best way to deal with the problem of those members of Congress who stay too long by taking advantage of the perks that translate into campaign assistance is to make sure they have real competition on a regular basis. That can be done by compensating challengers with similar support. Or by reducing subsidies to incumbents.

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