ST. LOUIS -- Former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft, running for the Senate seat being vacated by the retirement of fellow Republican John Danforth, lists term limits on members of Congress as part of his platform.
But when you ask him whether he is pledging himself to serve only two terms in the Senate, as most of the term limitation proposals specify, he says only that he has no "intention" of serving more.
Ashcroft says he will abide by the term limitation law already passed in Missouri, which includes a "trigger" provision stating that the limit will apply when half the states have enacted similar restrictions on congressional service.
That isn't going to happen tomorrow, but Ashcroft expresses confidence that the 25th state will pass term limits by the time he has served one six-year Senate term -- if he beats the Democratic nominee, Rep. Alan Wheat, on Nov. 8 as the polls now suggest.
All across the country this fall, other congressional candidates -- mostly Republicans and mostly challengers or candidates for open seats like Ashcroft -- are "taking the pledge" to serve only a limited number of terms, and without Ashcroft's condition.
The march of the time limit movement to victory seems inevitable right now. Some 17 states have approved limits in some form, though in two cases, there is some complication. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled last spring that insufficient petitions had been filed and the measure is on the ballot again, and a challenge has been raised to passage in Utah.
According to Cleta Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Institute, the issue is on the ballot in seven additional states this fall. If all of them enact term limits, the effort will be only one state short of the majority that would meet the Missouri requirement.
Judicial action, rather than lack of public support, seems to be the main threat to term limitations becoming the law in most if not all of the 50 states. In election after congressional election this fall, candidates -- particularly challengers to incumbents -- are pledging support for a constitutional amendment to limit members of the House of Representatives to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms.
U.S. Term Limits, a pro-limitation group advancing the constitutional amendment approach, claims to have pledges of support from 230 House and Senate candidates in the Nov. 8 elections. Not surprisingly, 210 of them are challengers, and only 20 incumbents.
But the immediate critical matter is what the Supreme Court will say about term limits in its new term just starting. The court will have before it a 1992 Arkansas case in which the state constitution was amended to keep off the ballot House members who have served three terms and senators who have served two.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that the amendment violated the U.S. Constitution, which, the court said, provides only the limitations of age, residence in the state and citizenship on candidates for federal office. That is the question before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Clinton administration and congressional leaders of both parties are calling for the highest court to back the Arkansas Supreme Court and strike down term limits.
Among the congressional leaders most importantly involved in the issue is House Speaker Tom Foley from Washington state, where voters approved term limits, only to have a district court also find it unconstitutional. That ruling has been appealed and the issue has become pivotal in Foley's re-election campaign.
Even if the U.S. Supreme Court rejects term limits, their most active supporters say such action will only add fuel to their drive for a constitutional amendment providing such restrictions on congressional service.
The Supreme Court isn't expected to take up the Arkansas case until spring, but by that time the sentiment for limiting congressional terms could be so strong that Congress might take action that would moot any court decision against it. There seems little doubt that state legislatures would quickly ratify the new amendment.