Supporters breathe new life into idea of term limits for Congress

WASHINGTON — Andy Harris hasn't made it to Congress yet, but his House career already has an expiration date.

Harris pledges to leave by 2023, highlighting term limits in his campaign to unseat Democratic Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr.


"Americans are losing their confidence in their elected officials," said the Baltimore County state senator. "I think more and more people are thinking the Constitution should be amended for term limits."

With anti-government anger rising, congressional candidates across the country are running as reformers, attacking earmarks and calling for limits on House and Senate terms. The trend is a throwback to 1994, when conservative Republicans proposed to replace "career politicians" with "citizen legislators" as part of a manifesto called the Contract with America.


They rode those politically popular issues to power but failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote in Congress to send term limits to the states for ratification. The issue faded.

Now, the idea is making a comeback. It meshes with a desire by Republicans to capitalize on voter discontent and gain the support of tea party sympathizers. It's by no means clear, however, that Republican leaders in Washington are ready to put term limits back on their national campaign agenda.

Candidates campaigning for term limits - almost all Republicans - are, for the most part, going after Democratic congressmen in the midterm election. Others have launched primary challenges from the right against incumbent Republicans.

The intraparty scuffles reflect a division that could become more pronounced as the wide-open contest for the party's 2012 presidential nomination takes shape later this year and next.

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a possible presidential contender and tea-party favorite, has revived the formal effort for a constitutional amendment, though it won't be going anywhere in the Democratic Congress.

"This nation can no longer afford these entrenched men and women who enjoy lives of luxury wholly insulated from the consequences of their major policy failure," DeMint said in introducing the measure.

His amendment is being supported by Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who is keeping a pledge to leave after two full terms and is running for governor; and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has said she would leave, despite losing a bid for Texas governor this month, but hasn't said when. Another co-sponsor is Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who kept a 1994 campaign promise to serve only six years in the House, went home for four and returned as a senator.

Mike Huckabee, a once and perhaps future Republican presidential candidate, is also on board. He says Republicans should be running on a national agenda in 2010 that includes congressional reform.


"They ought to be saying they'll support term limits," he told Fox News.

But some Washington Republicans have cooled on the issue.

Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, who came to Congress in the '94 landslide and is retiring this year, concluded that term limits are "not necessarily a good idea."

"I would agree that term limits will, in fact, empower the staff and empower outside forces," he said recently on CNN, repeating an argument made often by critics.

Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, leaving after 18 years, also changed his mind.

"I wouldn't do that again," he said of his 1995 vote for term limits. "I think that the people should be able to decide how long their member of Congress should serve," he told MSNBC this month, a view that meshes with term-limit opponents such as Kratovil, the freshman congressman from the Eastern Shore.


Unclear, at this stage, is whether House Republican leaders will embrace term limits in 2010 with enthusiasm, or at all.

Through an aide, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, tasked by House Republican leaders with drafting a rewrite of the Contract with America this fall, declined several requests for comment. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, architect of the original Contract, recently released an updated 10-point plan that left out term limits.

A leading term-limit proponent won't be surprised if the Republican establishment remains silent.

"Once the Republicans rode this issue into the Congress, they didn't deliver," said Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, an advocacy group. "I can understand why many professional politicians, including Newt Gingrich, would have a sour taste in their mouths from that experience."

Blumel said he is encouraged that Republican candidates, such as Senate contenders Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida, support the idea, as do many of their backers.

"The people in the streets at these tea-party rallies holding term-limit signs - that's a spontaneous explosion of interest that we're pleased and amazed by," he said.


Whether abandoning term limits as a Republican Party priority would affect support from tea-party voters is difficult to predict, according to strategists and activists.

Tea-party organizers say their push to rid Washington of its current leadership has intensified since President Barack Obama signed a new health care plan into law last week.

The 2010 campaign has "a very, very anti-incumbent feel right now," said Eric Odom of Las Vegas, chairman of Liberty First PAC and a term-limits supporter.

"Incumbency tends lately to equal corruption and support of special interests over the will of the people," said Odom. "Incumbency is not working, so we're hoping to limit long-term incumbency."

Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group of local tea parties, is preparing a "Contract from America," to be released April 15. Tea partiers are currently selecting the provisions from a set of options in an online poll.

"Term limits is polling pretty well," said Ryan Hecker, a Houston lawyer who organized the effort.


Over the years, a majority of voters has supported term limits in national opinion surveys, and the idea's popularity is one reason candidates are eager to embrace it. Critics dismiss it as a meaningless gimmick, and elected officials have learned that term limit pledges can be broken, often without harm to their re-election.

A new advocacy group hopes to change that. It wants politicians to back their term limit pledge with a significant chunk of their personal wealth. Candidates are being asked to sign a performance bond, promising to donate those personal assets to charity if they break a term-limit vow.

So far, only seven congressional candidates, all North Carolina Republicans, have signed, according to the Alliance for Bonded Term Limits of Pinehurst, N.C., with others expected to add their names soon.

Maryland's Harris says, if he's elected, he'll work for a constitutional amendment to term-limit members of Congress to 12 years, the length of time he's spent in the General Assembly.

As for taking a bonded term-limit pledge, Harris said he is "open to signing in the future."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.