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Andy Harris Gets Bartlett Help Despite Term Limit "Insult"

If Andy Harris had his way, Roscoe Bartlett, the only Republican congressman from Maryland, would have been sent packing years ago. He'd be out of the House and, presumably, back at his Frederick farm, raising sheep and dreaming up new scientific inventions.

That's because Harris, the Baltimore County state senator aiming to unseat Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, is promising, if elected, to introduce a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress.

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On the day he formally announced his 2010 candidacy, Harris stood under a framed photograph of Bartlett at state Republican headquarters in Annapolis and called for a 12-year limit on senators and congressmen.

Asked whether he believed the state would be better off if Bartlett had been forced to surrender his House seat, Harris shrugged and said he was confident that western Maryland voters could have found a good replacement.

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A less forgiving person might have considered that an insult. But if Bartlett is aware of what Harris had to say, he doesn't seem to be taking it personally.

Instead, Bartlett is joining two other well-known Maryland Republicans, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich and former gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey, in playing host to a $250-a-head fund-raising reception for Harris on Tuesday evening in Baltimore County.

Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, the number two man in the Republican House leadership, is the guest of honor, though it may be tough for him to make the event. Roll-call votes are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. in Washington. Bartlett's attendance, according to his office, is unlikely.Calling for congressional term limits may have helped Republicans gain control of the House in 1994, even though they never became law.

The issue might be becoming a potent one again this year, a time of public anger over politics as usual. Term limits are already a hot topic among the Tea Partiers that Republicans hope to win over by November.

It's not clear how eager Harris is to advertise his support for the idea. It doesn't appear on his campaign's issue page online.

Academic studies of legislative term limits at the state level have found mixed results. "Few of the most fervent hopes of [supporters] -- or the worst fears of its opponents -- materialized" in California, concluded a 2004 study by respected political scientists. A summary can be found here.

In modern times, the main promoters of term limits have been Republicans, since it meshes neatly with the party's anti-government message. It's an easy way to appeal to voters who can't stand what's happening in Washington and are desperate to throw out the bums.

Those disgruntled folks are likely to be among the independents that Harris would love to turn out this fall. He's hoping for a rematch against Kratovil in the conservative First District, which spans the Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Perhaps the best thing about term limits is that it's almost a no-lose issue for a Republican challenger.

It could help Harris capture a seat that he could well hold onto for many years to come. Having just turned 53, he may be on the verge of becoming a long career in Washington.

However, Harris is also pledging to impose a 12-year limit on himself as a member of the House.

History shows that politicians are often prone to break that promise and rarely get punished by voters when they do.

If Harris doesn't know that already, he should talk to veterans in Congress. Bartlett might be one person to ask.

When he came to Congress, Bartlett supported term limits. He voted, in 1995, in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have limited House members to 12 years, no strings attached: Once you served six terms, you'd be ineligible for re-election. Period.

The measure failed to get enough votes. But there was nothing to prevent those who supported it from living up to the ideal of the citizen legislator who goes to Washington for a time and then goes home, rather than becoming a permanent part of a corrupt political system.

Few chose to follow that path.

Bartlett has continued to run for re-election, easily moving beyond the 12-year limit that would have termed him out in 2004.

Bartlett "has said that unilateral self-imposed term limits put individual members' constituents at a disadvantage under the current seniority-driven rules of the Congress," Lisa Wright, his spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

"Of course, every two years, voters have an opportunity to vote on term limits for their representative and every six years for their senator(s)," she added.

Of course, voters seldom do anything with that opportunity.

During Bartlett's years in Washington, the re-election rate for House incumbents has risen to over 95 percent. Several factors--strong name identification of those already in office, fundraising clout linked to committee assignments, and computerized gerrymandering that protects incumbents of both major parties--combine to give all but the most corrupt politician a virtual lock on a House seat.

Bartlett, who turns 84 this spring, is widely regarded as a cinch to win a tenth term in 2010. A victory this fall would earn him an even 20 years as a member of the House.

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