|TWO MORE YEARS?|
August 18, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why a congressman is breaking a promise to his constituents. Jim Compton of KCTS-Seattle reports.
MODERATOR: Since 1989, he has held the position of Speaker of the House. Mr. Foley, thanks for being with us.
TOM FOLEY: My pleasure.
MODERATOR: The Republican challenger is George Nethercutt. Mr. Nethercutt is an attorney in private practice.
JIM COMPTON: George Nethercutt was the unlikely candidate who drove Tom Foley from office in 1994. Nethercutt was the first challenger to unseat a sitting Speaker of the House in more than a century. He promised to serve only three terms, but has announced he will not honor his pledge to quit after six years.
WOMAN: What are you going to do for the farmers?
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT, (R) Washington: Well, we're going to try to open markets, for crying out loud, and save the -- Hi, Jim. How are you doing? Same here.
WOMAN: Do you know how bad it really is?
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: I do. That's why I -- that's why I'm running again. People are telling me -- the farmers are saying, "do not leave," so --
WOMAN: Yes, but the farmers are mad because you're running now.
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: No, they're not either.
WOMAN: I don't know how you're going to reach them.
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: No, they're not.
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Of all the farmers, I had 100 farmers out in Reardan stand up and say, "go for it."
LITTLE GIRL: Hi, I'm Mary, and I'm nine years old, and we're going to do some good ol' country music for you. But first, we'd like to dedicate this first song to Mr. Nethercutt. And oh, Mr. Nethercutt, we're glad you changed your mind. (Applause)
JIM COMPTON: Nethercutt has endorsed Texas Governor George W. Bush for President, and made a high-profile appearance with Bush in Spokane.
SPOKESMAN: The next President of the United States, Governor George W. Bush.
JIM COMPTON: Bush reinforced Nethercutt's decision to run again.
SPOKESPERSON: Don't worry, help is on the way. (Laughter)
JIM COMPTON: But Nethercutt's decision to break his term limits pledge has not played well everywhere.
SPOKESMAN: He's the lightning rod for the term limits issue, and the bigger issue is keeping your word to the voters.
JIM COMPTON: All across Washington State's sprawling Fifth Congressional District, which stretches from the Columbia River to the Canadian border, the airwaves are humming with the story of the congressman who changed his mind. And the harshest criticism has been on Spokane's popular radio talk shows.
TALK SHOW HOST: We'll get to John and your call if you get in right now --
JIM COMPTON: Hosts Richard Clear and Steve Corker, among Nethercutt's most energetic supporters in the 1994 upset, are now claiming betrayal.
TALK SHOW HOST: And I'm going to tell you something, Republicans, we're going to use this program to make sure that George Nethercutt does not return to Congress.
TALK SHOW HOST: To make sure he pays the price.
TALK SHOW HOST: Absolutely.
TALK SHOW HOST: He pays the price for breaking the vow. And that's what you have to do when you broke your vow, you have to pay a price.
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: I haven't changed one iota. I've changed my mind on this issue, but people who know me know that I'm the same guy that came back to try to do a job for the fifth district.
JIM COMPTON: Nethercutt explains his change of mind this way:
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Circumstances are different today than they were when I was running. First of all, I didn't realize I'd be in the majority. I didn't realize I'd be on the Appropriations Committee. That means something for our district, not for me, but for our district. So sure, in life you learn. I've learned a lot since I've been in this job for a couple of -- well, four years now.
JIM COMPTON: During the '94 campaign, Nethercutt and Foley met in dozens of debates. And it was there that Nethercutt made his firm pledge to retire after three terms.
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Incumbency breeds incumbency. I think when someone gets to Washington for so long, they want to stay and stay and stay. I don't want to stay forever. I think you go back, as the citizen legislature concept of the Founding Fathers intended, you go back and you do a job.
WOMAN IN COMMERCIAL: I thought George Nethercutt would be different, but he's just like the other career politicians.
JIM COMPTON: The organization Term Limits U.S.A. gave Nethercutt strong support in 1994. And now it's determined to hold him to his promise. It recently spent $67,000 airing a commercial on Spokane stations.
WOMAN: Even children know they're supposed to keep their word.
WOMAN: I'm disappointed. I was a Nethercutt supporter, but I can't stand by a man who won't stand by his word.
JIM COMPTON: It was in the rural hamlet of Reardan, Washington, that George Nethercutt began his political career as city attorney. At a midweek yard sale, it was the national term limits movement that came in for criticism.
DICK LIVINGSTON: It seems we can't possibly do right in Washington by ourselves. We have to have some out -of- state help constantly. It's an irritant, you know - even -- I'm sorry. You're talking to an irate person right now.
JIM COMPTON: But other voters see a more basic issue of political integrity at stake. At the town's lone restaurant, a social worker had blunt words.
SUNNY BRANNIGAN: I think it's a very bad thing to do. It certainly makes me question his trustworthiness. I don't -- you know, if you're going to lie about one thing or change your mind as fast as that when money is involved, it doesn't really lead to a lot of confidence in the person.
JIM COMPTON: What does that mean, when money's involved?
SUNNNY BRANNIGAN: Well, he's obviously making quite a lot of money as a state representative, and he's moved his family back to Washington, D.C.. I understand he doesn't even have a home in Spokane anymore. I think that's money. (Laughs)
JIM COMPTON: Although Nethercutt's election was claimed as a victory for the national term limits movement, Foley's hold on the district had always been somewhat marginal. He had several close contests, including one race, a three-way race in the 1980's, which he won with just 48 percent of the vote. Nethercutt beat the Speaker of the House with 4,000 votes. In the logging communities nestled along the Canadian border, the hard-hit forest products industry has been experiencing a modest revival. And business executives in towns like Kettle Falls, Washington, want to keep George Nethercutt in Congress.
DICK JUST: George is in a position of leadership, and it would be a shame for our district to abandon him now. Now, having said that, remember that every two years in the case of Representatives, and every six years in the case of Senators, our people get to vote on term limits. And they do it at the ballot box. And when they feel that George no longer represents them -- when they feel that George or any other Representative or Senator is out of touch with the constituents, they'll vote him out. That's what happened with Tom Foley.
JIM COMPTON: Among Foley's supporters, the irony of Nethercutt's change of heart is not lost. Mike Ornsby was a Foley advisor in the 1994 campaign.
MICHAEL ORNSBY, Former Foley Adviser: Mr. Nethercutt framed this issue very well in 1994, and he said, "it's important to have officeholders that have a connection to the district. And Tom Foley, as nice a fellow as he is, and as good as he's been for the district, he no longer has a connection with us." Now those same people are saying, "gosh, he really wasn't different," and you know, "when's his work going to be done? Is he going to end up serving 30 years like Tom Foley did?" Because he's now beginning to sound a lot like Tom Foley sounded in 1994.
JIM COMPTON: Nethercutt's decision has become the talk of the media here. At the district's biggest newspaper, the moderate "Spokesman Review," political reporter Jim Camden says Nethercutt is putting the controversy behind him early.
JIM CAMDEN, Spokesman Review: I think there's a certain amount of inoculating yourself against this. He takes the hit now, and if it doesn't kill him like the vaccine for smallpox, you have enough antibodies built up so that in October or November of the year 2000, you can survive it. The term limits people have promised to spend $1 million against him. Well, he's got to build up a lot of resistance against that.
REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: It's good to be home. I got in yesterday.
JIM COMPTON: So far, no major challenger has emerged. With term limits advocates pledging a major effort to defeat him, the question has become how well the power of incumbency will serve George Nethercutt.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To correct one constituent's misimpression, Nethercutt still owns a home in his congressional district, but rents it out. His family lives with him in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.. Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, architects on the presidential campaign, and a new Mozart biography.