'Contract' limits


Washington -- WHEN NEWT Gingrich raves about the 100-day sprint of the Contract with America, he sounds like a TV salesman hustling a new, gotta-have-it car model.

Fast, sleek, powerful, a ride into a glittery future.

Always he brags of the incredible speed with which Republicans are backing up their 1994 election vows.

"Bold, profound change," Mr. Gingrich was bragging to an audience of mayors here Monday. "The welfare state is over. We're keeping our promises."

When he goes into this evangelical pitch, Mr. Gingrich leaves out two words -- a couple of obscenities that make Republicans wince and blush.

Term limits.

Mr. Gingrich's voice loses its bravado when he encounters those dreaded words. He mumbles like a car dealer explaining why the warranty doesn't cover a blown engine.

In truth, Newt & Co. have been bold in hurtling through their favorite sections of the Contract -- cutting school lunches, punishing welfare poor, making it tougher to sue big businesses.

But when it's time to apply the revolutionary knife to their own careers -- limit their Capitol Hill lives to six or 12 years -- congressfolk turn from tigers to pussycats.

Never mind that Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster, told them term limits was a wildly popular item, favored by 80 percent.

They stuck it at the end of the Contract, No. 10, with a hedged promise: "A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators."

Well, forget it. The House is going to kill term limits. And Republicans -- although Democrats have bloody hands, too -- will be guilty of the crime.

Here's Newt, doing a Johnnie Cochran imitation, speaking for the defense:

"Go back and read what we said in October. We said we were committed to a vote. But we also said it would be very, very hard."

But while Newt & Co. lobbied, connived and bullied through rules to pass the harsher Contract with America items, the House leadership -- especially Republican Whip Tom DeLay and judiciary chairman Henry Hyde -- treat term limits like a dead mackerel.

"It's a free country," sniffs Mr. Gingrich.

True, 22 states already have term limits, usually 12 years for senators and six years for congressfolk. In a farcical judiciary panel hearing, Republicans favored a constitutional amendment that would let a House member serve 12 years, take two off, come back for 12 -- the "Take A Break, Serve For Life" system.

Freshman Van Hilleary, R-Tenn., proposed limits -- 12 years for Senate and House, allowing states to set shorter terms -- that the old bulls disdainfully will allow on the floor. They know it's doomed, far short of 290 votes.

Sure, Republicans can dither and postpone the term-limits showdown.

The only political bloc steamed about the issue is Ross Perot's United We Stand. They're betting Ross' power will fade.

When Newt & Co. pay back their big-business contributors, it moves with warp speed. To the delight of physicians, restaurateurs and carmakers, Republicans in one week zipped through so-called legal reform that limits punitive lawsuits. At a frantic pace with scant debate, they zapped past regulatory reform -- great, if you like tainted hamburger and pesticide on your tomatoes.

There are no Gucci-shod armies of lobbyists, though, mobbing Capitol Hill corridors demanding congressfolk limit their careers.

Veteran congressfolk who hate term limits argue it strips voters of their rights: "It's anti-democratic," says Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "If people want to send a member here for 10, 20, 30 years, that's their choice. And it knocks out experience."

"Experience to do what? Run up a $5 trillion debt?" retorts freshman Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. "People are motivated now to perpetuate their careers. It's a closed system."

I suspect most Americans see term limits as a crude weapon to break up the cozy Washington web of lobbyists, big campaign dollars and entrenched politicians.

It would be like blowing up a snake pit with dynamite -- messy but effective.

Arguments are moot because Newt's House will kill term limits. Sure, most Democrats are not enthusiastic. But Republican leaders, gung-ho to cut poor programs and bolster big corporations, balk at endangering their Washington careers.

"Republicans, if they don't do what they promised, will pay the price," warns Mr. Thompson.

Newt's rebels will follow their bombastic leader on the Contract with America -- until it means surrendering their jobs.

Then stop the revolution, they want off.

"This is the most expensive credit card in America," Mr. Gingrich told his audience Monday. "A congressional voting card."

For Newt's zealots, that card is bought, paid for and nobody's gonna take it away.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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