WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the House rejection of the proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress, talk of retribution against the opponents is being heard, particularly from Republican freshmen convinced they have been sent to Capitol Hill on a holy mission to purify the place.
Judging from some of the rhetoric tossed around during the debate on term limits, you might even say exterminate the place, as if Congress were termite-infested. That, indeed, may be the sentiment of the 82 percent of voters who, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, favor limits being imposed on the federal legislators.
But that doesn't automatically mean that the 163 House Democrats, 40 Republicans and one independent who voted against imposing a 12-year limit had better start thinking about other gainful employment. The most rabid term-limit advocates are only the latest folks who mislead themselves about their ability to get voters to cast ballots on a single issue, no matter how strongly supported in a poll.
The same sort of huffing and puffing was heard from freshman Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania during the debate on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, which also was rejected. Santorum thundered that those who voted against it wouldn't be around much longer. While only time will tell on that one, the record of single-issue proponents in punishing legislators who dare to buck them is not particularly impressive.
During the debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, organized labor kept a list of members of Congress, especially Democrats, who voted for it and warned they would get their comeuppance at the polls when they were next up for re-election in 1994. Labor did go after some of them in primaries and general election contests, but with little success.
The same has been generally true in other efforts to depose members of Congress because of their votes on a single issue. Foes of abortion have managed in isolated instances to rally their forces to defeat supporters of abortion rights. But often their single-minded opposition has rallied voters who also back a woman's choice, a much larger segment of the electorate, to the side of the target.
During the long and ultimately failed battle for an equal-rights-for-women constitutional amendment, contending forces on both sides of the issue repeatedly threatened to punish members of Congress, and then state legislators faced with ratification, if they didn't vote "right" on the issue. But no matter how intensely these single-issue activists felt about the matter at hand, voters usually took a broader look at the candidates in casting their votes.
This whole business of using polling figures on public sentiment to intimidate legislators, first in how they cast their votes and then in threatening to purge them if they transgress the "popular will," raises once again the question of an elected official's proper responsibility. Should he or she, once elected, exercise independent judgment, or simply be a conveyor belt for public opinion?
Republican Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, sponsor of one of the term-limits amendments rejected by the House, says popular support "may be reason enough to enact them." If that were the case, however, it wouldn't be necessary to send people to Congress. The pollsters could simply assess public opinion and let automatons write the legislation accordingly.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, conveniently casting the defeat of term limits in pure partisan terms although 40 Republicans joined in rejecting them, says he will bring the amendment up again in the next Congress. "Give us 60 more Republicans next year," he said after the House vote, "and we'll pass term limits." In 1994, of the 35 House Democrats defeated for re-election, 23 lost to Republican term-limits proponents, but other issues also played a role in most outcomes.
What of the Republicans who have supported all or most of the other nine points in Gingrich's "Contract with America" but broke ranks on term limits? Should punitive, single-issue voting drive them out of Congress, too?