UWSA, February, 1995

The Bigger Issue Within The Term Limits Issue

By Dennis Polhill

The Republican majority in Congress has a serious problem: term limits. Perhaps they didn’t really expect to gain majority control with their promises and “Contract With America.” Now they have to deliver, and their pain is exhibited by the schizophrenic conduct of that collective body. By the time you read this, all four proposed constitutional amendments on term limits will have died on March 28 for lack of the necessary 290 votes. What to do?

The process of “incremental amendment” to the U.S. Constitution evolved when the 17th and 19th amendments (popular election of Senators and women’s suffrage) were adopted. Incremental amendment was the product of several converging Populist era reforms: primary elections, secret ballots, and the initiative and referendum (I & R) process. Congress always blocks amendments it doesn’t like, usually when Congress has an inherent conflict of interest and the people are acting to limit abuse of power. Current examples are term limits, balanced budget, line item veto, unfunded mandates, devolution of responsibilities to the states. Count on the national referendum idea receiving similar contemptuous treatment.

To force Congress to act against its natural self-interest, pressure must build to eventually be unbearable. With incremental amendment, this occurs in a four stage process: first by citizen initiated action in I & R states (currently there are 24 and term limits has passed in 22). Stage two is action in non-I & R states (this year New Hampshire will become the first non-I & R state to pass term limits. On March 7, their Senate passed it unanimously after being purged over term limits in the 1994 election). Stage three is when Congress refers a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification. Stage four is when the states ratify the measure already passed by the people. By the time a dozen non-I & R states pass term limits the pressure on Congress will be sufficient to motivate action. The tactics of muddling the debate over scope is merely a stalling tactic. Who among us is shocked that the least restrictive version of term limits is the most popular in Congress? It’s a lot like having a first grader set his own bedtime.

Two important points can be concluded from this background:1 — The I & R process is very important. It should be protected and preserved in all I & R states. It should be adopted in all non-I & R states. The new UWSA issue of a national referendum is an appropriate and worthy goal. Actions by Congress or the Supreme Court to undermine states rights must be opposed.2 — It is premature for Congress to act on a constitutional amendment on term limits. Only the Sanford-Deal statute (which can be passed by the Republican majority) advances term limits by endorsing the rights of the states to impose term limits and simultaneously providing protection (of both term limits and I & R) against an adverse Supreme Court ruling in June.

If the Republican majority in Congress chooses to pass the Sanford-Deal bill, the term limit movement will consider them to have honored their campaign promise. Please urge your Congressperson to vote for the Sanford-Deal bill (H.R. 1104). For more information about term limits or to become active in the term limits issue, contact Dennis Polhill.