Power and promises



Earlier this week, Senator Jim DeMint and several GOP colleagues unveiled a bill that would require all federal lawmakers to give up their jobs after serving a fixed number of years. This would be a constitutional amendment. Senators would max out at 18 years (three terms); and House members would max out at six years (also three terms). In other words, term limits.

Good luck with that one.

When you cover politics long enough (that would be me), it's amazing how often all the old stuff gets re-branded as something new. When I heard the news about DeMint's bill, I was instantly transported back to 1990, when term limit talk was all the rage in Republican circles. GOP strategists kept telling me how important it was to take America back to the concept of "citizen legislators." They argued that all congressmen should be required to cough up their seats (and their perks) after only a few terms, because, as one strategist told me, by that point "any congressman is no longer committed to any interest except his own."

I kept insisting that they were hot for term limits only because they had been out of power in the House since 1955; that their real aim was to slap term limits on Democrats in order to compel them to retire - thus creating open seats and hiking the odds of Republicans taking back the chamber. And they kept telling me: oh no, that's not it, this is really a matter of principle, this should apply to all members regardless of party.

Indeed, their fervor for term limits was written into Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, the pact of principles that conservatives embraced during their successful campaign to take back the Congress in 1994. During that campaign, in fact, scores of Republican House candidates promised to serve only a few terms, then quit their seats. Seventy-three of those candidates won their elections.

Yet by early in the next decade, 68 of those 73 had broken their promises and opted to stick around indefinitely.

Take George Nethercutt, for instance. He ousted Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, winning that seat in part by pledging to serve only three terms and leave office in January 2001; he wound up staying until 2005. Better yet, consider Jeff Flake. The Arizona conservative also promised to serve only three terms and vacate his seat in January 2001; last I heard, Flake was still around, voting against the economic stimulus and health care reform.

As former Republican congressman J.C. Watts (one of the few promise-keepers) wryly remarked in a newspaper column several weeks ago, "Unfortunately, those 68 representatives...concluded that America could not survive without their continued services." In essence, he wrote, "The Contract With America lost its soul at the turn of the century."

It's no mystery what happened: Once the House Republicans got the power, they decided it was better to enjoy its fruits for as long as possible. They also discovered that they would never land the plum committee jobs (and send bushels of federal bucks back to the district) unless they stuck around long enough to get the requisite seniority. Which is why, after a flurry of Republican attempts to pass a term-limits constitutional amendment on the House floor in 1995, the issue was never heard from again.

Until Senator DeMint resurrected it this week. He told The Washington Times that "as long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buy off special interests...and trading favors for pork - in short, amassing their own power." But his pitch won't go anywhere, either; it's noteworthy that he has attracted only two Republican co-sponsors, one of whom is Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who's leaving town anyway to run for governor in Texas.

The vast majority of federal lawmakers - in both parties - have zero interest in truncating their careers. (Nor do the voters seem to care one way or the other; even though polls always show majority support for term limits, congressmen are rarely punished for breaking their promises to leave. Mike McIntyre, a North Carolina Democratic congressmen, was first elected in 1996 after pledging to cap his service at 12 years. He wasn't supposed to run for re-election again in 2008. He did it anyway. He won by 38 percentage points.)

It's human nature, really. Politicians, once they have power, are strongly inclined to keep it. And the impulse is timeless. In fact, there once was a national chamber that required its members to serve limited terms. But when the leaders actually tried to enforce this rule for the first time, the members went ballistic. The incumbents who had overstayed their statutory welcome created bedlam on the floor, and the leaders dropped the rule - prompting one member to lament, "I never saw more indecent conduct in any assembly before."

The date was March 1, 1784, the chamber was the Continental Congress, and the lamenting member was future president James Monroe.