WASHINGTON -- Anticipating this week's Senate debate on a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on senators and representatives, Cleta Mitchell, the former Democratic state legislator from Oklahoma who is the George Patton of the term-limits movement, proposed to Haley Barbour, Republican national chairman, concerning Bob Dole: "He badly needs to get comfortable with this issue so he can talk about it without grimacing and explaining all the reasons why he hates it."
Mr. Barbour, although a man of many parts, is a politician, not a magician, so he will be unable to make Senator Dole seem to enjoy eating his spinach. The last two Republican platforms endorsed term limits and so will the one Mr. Dole runs on, and he will vote for the amendment. However, he has an agreeable incapacity for sustained insincerity, and is hilariously unconvincing -- his body language alone refutes his spoken language -- when he says he favors term limits.
A January poll by the Tarrance Group shows that 77 percent of Americans favor term limits (59 percent "strongly support" limits; only 17 percent oppose, only 9 percent "strongly" oppose). Limits are supported in all regions and by both sexes and by blacks and Hispanics. However, the amendment will fall far short of the two-thirds support (67 votes) needed to send it to the states for ratification debates. Hence the following paradox of the term-limits movement.
The strongest argument for limits is not the common one about making Congress "closer to the people." Congress is too close, too responsive to organized, clamorous appetites. It is because careerism is the dominant motive of most legislators. By removing that motive, term limits would make Congress less subservient to public opinion and more deliberative.
Yet in what one conspicuous particular does the political class resist opinion? In opposition to term limits. That class will take a politically risky position when the alternative is the certainty of career limits on that class.
Can you think of anything else in modern American experience that has enjoyed such broad, protracted and adamant public support as term limits, and that Congress, which jumps through hoops for innumerable little lobbies, has refused to grant? And all Congress is being asked to grant is the possibility of 50 state debates about ratification.
The term-limits movement's motive in insisting on a vote this week is to establish a benchmark for measuring subsequent progress in what will be a long campaign. Here are the basic numbers, beginning with ol' number one -- W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel.
To comb his mother's hair
O'Daniel, a Texas radio announcer and salesman for Light Crust Flour and songwriter ("Beautiful, Beautiful Texas," "Sons of the Alamo," "The Boy Who Never Grew Too Old to Comb His Mother's Hair"), got elected governor in 1938 and U.S. senator in 1941. In 1947, when Congress was debating the 22nd Amendment that imposed term limits on presidents, O'Daniel proposed limits for all elective officials. His proposal, the first and until now the only Senate vote on term limits, lost, 82-1. Term-limiters will do better this week.
Last year there was a debate on an inconsequential sense-of-the-Senate resolution calling for a vote on term limits. A motion to table the resolution passed 49-45. From that flimsy evidence some supporters of term limits conclude, almost certainly too optimistically, that their base vote is 45. This year there will be only a cloture vote on shutting off debate to get to a straight vote on term limits.
There will not be the necessary 60 votes for cloture. Pappy O'Daniel's vote will still be the only Senate vote cast for term limits, which fact is a tribute to the tenacity of the political class.
Nineteen Democrats oppose term limits even though they represent states where voters have approved term limits. Probably only four of the Senate's 47 Democrats support the amendment. Twelve of the 53 Republican senators oppose it. Forty-one Republican supporters plus four Democrats make 45. Cleta Mitchell suggests locking the 12 retrograde Republicans in a room and forcing them to draw straws to see which six get to vote "no." The other six would have to vote "yes" to produce the moral victory of a 51-vote majority, and a good issue for their party.
All 17 Democratic senators who will be up for re-election in 1998 oppose term limits. But Democrats in Congress suffer little for their opposition, largely because most Republicans in Congress actually are part of the problem. They have not hammered term limits home as a defining principle of their party because, like Senator Dole, they come to the issue the way they go to the dentist -- as rarely as possible, and only as a painful duty.
Pub Date: 4/22/96