Potomac fever kills term-limit movement; 3 supporters succumb, renege on vow to quit after 6 years in House; 'Voters just don't care'


WASHINGTON -- Republican Reps. Tom Coburn and George Nethercutt were elected to Congress in 1994 as part of a wave of "citizen" lawmakers who pledged to stay only six years and then return to life among their constituents.

Now in his last term, Coburn says he's been liberated to act as he sees fit and to answer to no one on Capitol Hill. The Oklahoman has made it his mission to force Congress to meet spending caps and vows to tie up the House all summer in an effort to trim costly pet projects.

Nethercutt, by contrast, has reneged on his pledge to quit. He says his district in Washington state would be better served if he stayed on to protect his pet projects -- such as dams on the Snake River -- from people like Coburn.

The national enthusiasm for congressional term limits seems to have faded to the point where many lawmakers say they now find Coburn's decision to leave harder to understand than Nethercutt's decision to stay.

Nearly half the House members who volunteered, along with Coburn and Nethercutt, to retire after six years have had a change of heart.

The drive to force Congress to enact mandatory term limits failed. And the pressure on congressional candidates to pledge themselves to limited terms has subsided.

"Voters just don't care," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Florida Republican who supports the idea of limited congressional tenures but has never committed to an exit date for himself. "In fact, a lot of voters are looking at people like Coburn leaving and saying, 'Why?' "

A key test of that sentiment will come next year, when the voters in Nethercutt's district will render a judgment on him. He was the Republican newcomer who in 1994 toppled the Democratic speaker of the House, Thomas S. Foley, partly over the issue of term limits.

A 30-year Capitol Hill veteran, Foley had vehemently opposed restrictions on congressional service and had asked the Supreme Court to overturn the congressional term limits approved by referendum in his state.

While critics ridiculed Foley as so besotted with Potomac fever that he would sue his own constituents to preserve his plum position in Washington, Nethercutt cast himself as immune to the trappings of power. He promised to serve three terms and then return home to Spokane.

'Changed my mind'

But Nethercutt, 54, announced a few weeks ago what had long been suspected: "I've changed my mind. I made a mistake when I chose to set a limit on my service.

"The work I've done will not be finished by the end of this term," the congressman said then. "Thousands of people have urged me to run again. They believe in the work I'm doing to cut taxes, to open foreign markets for our farmers, and to help find cures for diseases like diabetes and cancer."

U.S. Term Limits, a private group that has waged a campaign for nearly a decade to confine lawmakers to fixed periods of service, plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to unseat Nethercutt as a "hypocrite."

Nethercutt was apparently targeted because he was so closely allied with the term limits cause in 1994.

"If George wins, it does say something about a shift in what people think about term limits," said Coburn, 51. "I think he's honestly had a change of heart. But if I had those same feelings, I would have left on schedule and run again two years later."

Retake control

The term-limits movement reached its apex in 1994, when Coburn, Nethercutt and 71 other House Republican freshmen were elected, giving the GOP control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

A major plank of the House Republicans' "Contract with America," the campaign document that most GOP candidates endorsed in that election, was a pledge to vote on a constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms.

The House Republicans were true to their word. They offered four versions of the term-limits amendment in March 1995, but none attained the necessary 290 votes for a two-thirds majority.

Two months later, congressional term limits that had been approved in several state referendums were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Yet Republican leaders have felt little pressure to try again on the constitutional amendment.

'It's losing steam'

"I think it's losing steam," said House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of the term-limits movement.

"And rightly so," added the eight-term Texas congressman. "Term limits are unconstitutional and would undermine our democracy by giving too much power to staff to run the Congress."

Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, says he has given up hope that Congress will act to curtail its tenure anytime soon.

"We're now pushing for people to accept limits voluntarily, hoping that at some point enough of them will be elected to pass the constitutional amendment," he said.

Jacob counts 35 House members and 10 senators in the voluntary group at this point.

But of the 10 lawmakers who had originally promised to leave at the end of this term, Nethercutt and two others -- Reps. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican -- have changed their minds.

End of year

A fourth -- Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican -- says she will announce a decision by the end of the year.

Fowler, a term-limits activist before she arrived in Congress, says she had fully intended to leave at the end of this term. But the Republican leadership shake-up late last year suddenly thrust her into a new position of power, as vice chairman of the Republican conference.

"My whole life changed in the space of three days," she said.

Fowler says she still believes in the concept of term limits. She complained, though, that Jacob and his organization are too rigid in their insistence on no more than six years for House members.

"I said, 'Eight is enough,' in my campaign, but I think a 12-year limit makes some sense," Fowler said.

Others on Jacob's list have made a variety of promises about how long they will serve.

Sen. Jim Bunning, a 67-year-old Kentucky Republican who was elected to the Senate last year after serving six terms in the House, promised to retire in 2010 after two six-year terms.

"I figured I'd be dead by then," he quipped.

Two-thirds are new

As a practical matter, the turnover in Congress has been so high in the '90s -- through both voluntary departures and defeat at the polls -- that most of the faces have changed without term limits.

More than two-thirds of current House members were first elected in the 1990s.

Yet despite the turnover, Coburn contends that the real power in the House -- vested in key committee chairmen -- remains unaffected.

Consequently, he asserts, the only way to oust lawmakers from these highly coveted posts is to limit the terms of office.

'How hardball is played'

"They build a power base based on careerism, and then they execute that power base," Coburn said. "That's how the hardball is played. Revenge is a big part of the process around here. There are paybacks if you don't dance properly."

In fact, Nethercutt was rewarded for his defeat of Foley with a treasured seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee -- a rare privilege for a freshman.

For his part, as Coburn prepares to do battle with his colleagues by pushing amendments or other tactics intended to compel their frugality, he acknowledges that he is driven by more than the understanding that he won't be around much longer.

"I'm a maverick, anyway," he said. "My tenacity, my decision to take a stand and not move off of it -- it's just my nature."

Pub Date: 7/07/99

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