WASHINGTON - In grabbing control of the House, Republicans promised a vote on a proposition that always strikes a chord with frustrated voters: imposing term limits on members of the House and Senate to finally depose those entrenched, out-of-touch lawmakers.
Within months of taking power, the new majority put the idea on the floor, where it flopped spectacularly. That episode was in 1995, when Republicans, led by newly installed Speaker Newt Gingrich, pledged a vote on term limits as part of their vaunted Contract with America, only to have the proposal rejected by some of the same folks who signed off on the contract. Voters get much more excited about term limits than do those who would be bound by them.
Now the new House Republican majority is again pursuing limits on how long members of Congress can serve, and the result is likely to be the same: failure to garner the votes needed to send a constitutional amendment to the states for approval. But that won't deter the backers of the plan, who once again say the public is fed up with career politicians and that those who reject term limits do so at their political peril.
"This is a long stairway, but you take the first step," said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who is the lead backer of term limits in the House. "Let everybody vote up or down. This time I think there will be consequences for those who vote against it. There is a time for politicians to go home and live under some of the rules they have passed."
Norman said he expects Speaker Kevin McCarthy to allow a vote on the idea in the next few months. A similar resolution in the Senate sponsored by Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is unlikely to get a vote because it is opposed by both Democratic and Republican leaders.
"Leadership in both parties is opposing the overwhelming consensus of the American voters on this issue," Cruz said. "The one group that doesn't support term limits are career politicians in Washington. If it comes to a vote, I think it is hard for elected officials to vote against it."
Critics assail the effort as gimmickry, an easy show vote for lawmakers who want to be seen as fighting the status quo in Washington while knowing they will not have to abide by term limits themselves since there is little chance they will be imposed. Opponents also say that enacting term limits would deprive Congress of the experience and savvy that lawmakers develop over years of serving.
"The fact that I have had the institutional memory that I've had here has always been helpful to the national debate and certainly back home as well," said Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., a former Ways and Means Committee chair just elected to his 18th term. "If you want to turn Congress over to the amateurs and the antis and the special interests, embrace term limits."
The call for term limits was a central part of Republicans' takeover of the House in the 1994 midterm elections, helping them build the case that Democrats had become corrupt and arrogant after four decades in power. The "citizen legislature" was a major plank of the contract, pledging a "first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators." Republicans had also been heartened by seeing state legislatures around the country impose term limits on their officeholders.
After Republicans won that November, the vote finally rolled around on March 29, 1995. The day before, Gingrich published an op-ed in The Washington Post laying the groundwork for a loss by blaming Democrats, since the House could not muster the two-thirds majority necessary to send a constitutional amendment to the states - 290 votes - without significant Democratic support.
"This vote says to the American people that this is their country," Gingrich wrote. "It says to our citizens that they are entrusted with greater control."
Despite his pleas, the vote to impose 12-year limits on both the House and Senate attracted a bare majority of just 227 votes, significantly short of the required supermajority threshold. A barbed Democratic alternative that would have imposed term limits retroactively, knocking out scores of lawmakers of both parties, did not even attract a majority.
While Republicans tried to hold Democrats responsible for the failure, 40 Republicans also balked, and 30 of them were among the most senior Republicans in the House. That included Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, who won an ovation for his speech in opposition to the proposal.
"I just can't be an accessory to the dumbing down of democracy," Hyde told his colleagues.
After the defeat, Republicans sought again to make term limits a major issue in the 1996 elections and staged another vote in February 1997. The proposal fared even worse than before, barely surpassing a majority, let alone a supermajority, and any momentum for imposing term limits slowed.
The momentum for adhering to personal pledges also dissipated. In one of the best-known cases, George Nethercutt, R-Wash., who ousted Speaker Thomas Foley in 1994 almost solely on the basis of Foley's opposition to term limits, reneged on his promise to serve only three terms in the House and was elected twice more.
Last year, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., won a third term in the Senate despite promising to serve only two terms, saying he broke his pledge because the nation was in too much peril for him to leave.
The concept of term limits has always been more popular in the House than in the Senate, where seniority is extremely advantageous. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader who this year broke the record for the longest-serving Senate leader, has been particularly opposed, arguing that elections already serve as term limits.
But Norman, who is in his third full term after winning a special election in 2017, dismisses the idea that experience is a plus in Congress.
"Look at the shape of the country," Norman said. "I could pick 435 people off the streets to get a better return on investment than with politicians."
The resolution being pushed by Norman and Cruz is more restrictive than the ones defeated in the 1990s and would allow just three terms in the House and two in the Senate. Norman said he is open to slight upward adjustments in House tenure and has said he expects to run just a few more times himself.
But Cruz, who will complete his second term next year, said his support of a two-term limit on senators does not mean he won't be seeking a third term for himself in 2024, in line with his own bill.
"I have never suggested that I support unilateral term limits," he said. "I would happily comply with them if they applied to everyone. I never said I would do it alone if no one else complied."
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