Term Limits for Senators and Representatives
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KWAME HOLMAN: This is the second time in two years a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of Senators and Representatives has arrived on the floor of the House. And by this evening, the latest proposal is expected to leave the same way as the last ones, defeated.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. Chairman, term limits is an idea whose come and gone.
KWAME HOLMAN: Two years ago term limits was one of the ten priority items House Republicans wrote into their Contract with America. The idea grew out of the grassroots work of United We Stand, America, the organization created by supporters of Ross Perot. And its members pressured the Congress right up until the vote.
ROY DOWLING, United We Stand, America: We called and actively campaigned for the biggest change in 40 years. And we were successful. If that didn’t send them a powerful message, they’re not smart enough to be the most powerful people in the world.
KWAME HOLMAN: But most House Republicans wanted to show they were smart enough and made a very public push to get the 2/3 vote of Congress needed to amend the Constitution. Florida Congressman Bill McCollum led the charge.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: We are interested in whipping, that is, gaining the votes we need to have to get to the number of 290. And that means to ask the public to knock on the door of every one of their congressmen who they may be in doubt about and make sure, if they believe, as we know, 76 percent or better of the public does, that they vote for a term limit amendment final passage.
KWAME HOLMAN: But while 80 percent of Republicans did vote for term limits two years ago, most Democrats voted against them. And support fell far short of the 290 votes needed for passage. House Speaker Newt Gingrich conceded defeat even before the votes were counted.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: (1995) But I can promise you if the Democratic Party tonight defeats term limits, the contract may have been postponed in one of its ten items but it will be back. And when we have picked up enough additional seats in 1996, we will pass it as HR-1 in ’97.
KWAME HOLMAN: Actually, term limits was reintroduced today as the second item on the new Congress’s legislative agenda.
SPOKESMAN: The Joint Resolution HJ Res 2.
KWAME HOLMAN: But with fewer, not more, Republicans in the House this time around, term limits hardly is receiving the same fanfare and enthusiasm as it did two years ago. Nonetheless, Florida’s Bill McCollum is back leading the charge.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM: If you ask the public, they understand this reform is important. It is not just a passionate issue with them at the moment. That happens to be the truth. On the other hand, we in my party, the Republican Party, as opposed to the Democrats, the years they were in control, believe that we ought to continue to raise this issue, and that ultimately we’ll get the term limits constitutional amendment if we do, and only if we keep raising it are we going to get there. And it’s not cynical. It’s very objective. It’s very driven by those of us who believe deeply in term limits. And we say- and we know we don’t have the 290 votes yet, but we also know that if we don’t raise this up and have the votes and put people on the record and have this debate, we’ll never get there.
KWAME HOLMAN: McCollum’s own term limit plan calls for a 12-year limit on service in the House and 12 years in the Senate. The plan would not be retroactive to include the terms of sitting members. It’s the plan that seems to have the most support among members. Yesterday, McCollum went before the House Rules Committee asking that it limit the number of alternative plans members would be allowed to consider on the floor.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM: While there are a variety of amendments that are going to be offered obviously now, it was the desire of most of us, who are very strong term limits supporters, that really this Congress be only one.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Rules Committee, however, permitted nine different plans to be brought to the floor today, allowing term limit opponents the opportunity to poke fun at the resulting confusion.
REP. MEL WATT, (D) North Carolina: And you’ve got one that would gives us three two-year terms and the Senators two six-year terms, the so-called Arkansas version. You’ve got one that they call the Colorado version. You’ve got one that they call the Idaho version. You’ve got one they call the Missouri version.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM: We’d like to have a single vote up and down on one that has the best chance of success. And even those who supported in the House last time the six-year version or an eight-year version, some preferred that on the House side, said in meetings we had over the past year let’s work together towards a single vote on the 12-year version, 12 in the House, 12 years in the Senate, simply because that has the best chance of success, and we won’t splinter. We’ll focus. We won’t let somebody divide, and we won’t let somebody hide behind these other votes.
KWAME HOLMAN: But today some members felt compelled to test other votes. Ballot initiatives approved in nine states last November instruct their congressmen to vote for a plan endorsed by a group called U.S. Term Limit. It calls for a six-year limit on House terms and twelve in the Senate.
REP. ASA HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: The voters of Arkansas have specifically detailed the constitutional amendment that they want. And out of respect for the people of Arkansas, I’m offering this substitute amendment. And out of respect for them, I will also vote against any version that does not comply with the Arkansas language; therefore, I will vote against Mr. McCollum’s bill not because I’m opposed to term limits but because this particular resolution does not comply with the term limit instructions approved by the voters and the people of Arkansas.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the day, while the House considered nine different plans, members squared off in a debate over the need for any term limits plan at all.
REP. MARGE ROUKEMA, (R) New Jersey: We do need congressional turnover and fresh ideas, but we need those ideas to be combined with a balance of experience and expertise. Mr. Speaker, there is a learning curve for every job. And the same is true for members of Congress. To impose automatic term limits would greatly increase–and I think this is very important–greatly increase the power of paid congressional staff, lobbyists, government bureaucrats, and I might add all those unelected government regulators.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE, (R) Ohio: I remain convinced that limits are not only beneficial; they are essential to making Congress more effective, productive, and accountable. The Congress was meant to be a citizen legislature. The founding fathers and those that followed after them were laymen, not career politicians. And just think of the many benefits that would come from term limits: a regular influx of new ideas, fresh, motivated members, a Congress close to the people and issues facing them out there in the real world, a greater emphasis on merit, rather than seniority, and a better chance to guard against legislative gridlock.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the midst of all the arguments term limits opponents, especially Republicans, were comforted by the support of one of the most influential members of the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde.
REP. HENRY HYDE, (R) Illinois: When we amend the Constitution, we should expand liberty, not diminish it, not contract the voters’ choice. This amendment isn’t conservative; it’s reactionary. It echoes the 60′s theme “Never trust anybody over 30.” The last time we debated this issue we opponents were accused of arrogance; that we were the only ones who were qualified to govern. On the contrary, the beginning of wisdom is knowing how much you don’t know, and if there’s any arrogance here, it’s among those who have no idea how difficult it is to draw the line between liberty and order, and would deny the voters the right to choose whom they will to help draw that line.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nevertheless, the chief House sponsor of term limits gave one last push.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM: You can have all of the rotation you want in the numbers of members here. Three quarters of the body somebody said have turned over in the last couple of Congress elections. And you can still have the power vested in the hands of the few who do stay here who are not term-limited in any way. They’re the committee chairmen. They’re the powers in the leadership. They’re the ones who control this place. And that isn’t right. We need term limits for the same reason that we need to end careerism and special interest considerations when it comes to those few members who do stay here.
KWAME HOLMAN: By day’s end the House had taken a series of votes but only the McCollum amendment, limiting members to 12 years of service, appeared likely to get even a majority of votes but still well short of the 2/3 needed for passage. If it fails in the House, term limits apparently will not be considered again in the 105th Congress.