Denver Post, October 11, 1998

 

No Uncertain Terms

Measure seeks to Limit Congressional Stays

Less is more with career politicians

By Dennis Polhill

Colorado voters have another golden opportunity to lead the charge for term limits on Congress. Amendment 18, on the ballot this November, is the next crucial step in restoring Congress to a true citizen legislature through term limits.

Amendment 18 will do two important things. First, it allows candidates to sign an official pledge to live by self-imposed term limits and thus go to Washington as citizen legislators. These citizen legislators will better represent us because the temptation of a lavish career in Congress dangled before them by lobbyists, special interests and party bosses will not be possible. They will remain closer to the people of our state, because they know that one day soon they will again, be private Colorado citizens.

Of course, many of Colorado’s congressional representatives have already term-limited themselves. Former Sen. Bill Armstrong stepped down after two terms, and Hank Brown came back to Colorado after one term in the Senate. Senators Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell have pledged to serve no more than two terms, and ‘Campbell’s opponent, Dottie Lamm, has also pledged a two-term limit. And this list is far from complete. Amendment 18 will put these pledges officially on record.

Secondly, Amendment 18 means that as voters we’ll know whether a candidate for Congress seeks to be a citizen legislator, serving the people for a short period of time, or a professional politician seeking to cash in on the perks, privileges and lucrative pension of a career in Congress. We’ll know because it will be an official matter of record, and because candidates will have the option of putting that information next to their name on the ballot. Incumbents cannot be denied the opportunity to continue running for office even if they betray their promise.  But voters will have information to enforce the candidate’s pledge if they choose.      

The pledge limits signers to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and two terms in the U.S. Senate. These are the same limits Colorado voters passed statewide repeatedly, but the courts disallowed. Yet where those laws failed in court, Amendment 18 will be upheld because no candidate is forced to do anything. The pledge is completely voluntary. Candidates who decline to sign will suffer no penalty. Those who do sign can choose whether or not to receive a notation next to their name on future ballots, indicating that they have signed. Those who decline to sign can ask, if they wish, for a notation on the ballot indicating their opposition to imposing term limits.

It is an issue of character contrasting sharply with the hypocrisy of those who profess to favor term limits while doggedly pursuing a long-time career in Washington. Voters know, too, that the longer politicians remain in office the more susceptible they become to the lures of power, and the more they represent the special interests of Washington, not their own.

Let’s face it. Deadlines concentrate the mind wonderfully. Instead of playing games, term-limited representatives will be eager to get to work, to accomplish something substantial before they must turn over the baton to the next citizen legislator. They won’t have time for political games. Instead, our representatives to Washington will have every incentive to change the destructive and corrupting culture of Washington.

It’s an old story, almost as old as our republic. Once upon a time statesmen typically served a couple of terms and then went home, following the lead of George Washington. Alas, the founders took the virtue of rotation so much for granted that nobody bothered to write it into the Constitution (an omission that distressed Jefferson, for one). From 1790 until 1940 the average turnover in Congress was 40 percent. Since 1940 turnover has averaged a feeble 17 percent. Today, most politicians who go to Congress want to stay and stay and stay.

Voters can demand that candidates limit themselves, and they can hold their representatives to that commitment. Amendment 18 helps them do just that by providing candidates an opportunity to speak out on the issue (if they choose) and giving voters information that they consider important.

Colorado led the charge for congressional term limits by passing the first such law in the nation in 1990. We then passed term limits, for local elected officials throughout the state in 1994. Two years later, Colorado voters passed an initiative that instructed our legislators to do everything in their power to pass a constitutional amendment for congressional term limits.

But politicians, and the special interests that feed at the public trough, won’t give up without a fight. By arrogantly denying the people their will, not only do they frustrate one of the most needed congressional reforms, but they subvert the very foundation of our democratic process. Amendment 18 is your chance to reform an out-of-touch, out-of-control Congress. Vote yes on term limits.— yes on Amendment 18.

Dennis Polhill is a civil engineer and has been co-chairman of the Colorado Term Limits Coalition since 1994.

 

Don’t turn away experienced incumbents

By Robert D. Loevy

Once again the issue of term limits is making an appearance in the state of Colorado.

I am referring to the Voluntary Congressional Term Limits initiative that will be on the general election ballot in Colorado on Nov. 3.

This particular version of the ever-returning proposal provides that candidates for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate may note on the ballot their voluntary acceptance of term limits.

There was a time when term limits could be defended on a partisan basis. Until 1994, the Democratic Party controlled the U.S. Rouse of Representatives for multiple decades, starting with the congressional elections of 1954.

Republican strategists, desperate to break the apparent Democratic strangle hold on the U.S. House, came up with term limits as the solution to the problem.

If incumbent Democratic legislators were forced by constitutional fiat to leave office after six or eight years, the thinking went, the Republicans would have a better chance of winning what would automatically become an “open” seat.

I confess that political science professors such as myself played a role in the increasing popularity of congressional term limits during the 1970s and 1980s.

We carefully documented the ways in which incumbent Democratic House members skillfully used the powers of their elected offices to almost automatically get re-elected.

By sending mail to their constituents (often at government expense), getting on television, and doing favors, Democratic legislators in Washington, D.C., were able to virtually guarantee their re-election for, it seemed, decades to come.

As this process became well known, many Republicans throughout the nation became supporters of term limits and began pushing the idea, in a non-partisan or bipartisan fashion, as good for all levels of government, not just the U.S. House of Representatives. But this 1998 version of congressional term limits for Colorado might best be characterized as “The Irrelevant Monster From The Past.”

It is irrelevant because the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 eliminated all logic, partisan or otherwise, for congressional term limits.

In 1994 the Republicans showed that, even without term limits, enough Democratic incumbents could be defeated for the GOP to take over the U.S. House of Representatives. 

And the best part of that historic 1994 turnover in the U.S. House of Representatives was that it was orchestrated by current voters, expressing their will in an open election rather than by legalistic lines written in a national or state constitution.

So Colorado voters should keep in mind, as they troop to the polls to vote on Voluntary Congressional Term Limits, that the logic for supporting such a measure is buried in the past — a partisan Republican past that is no longer relevant to the current political situation.

In fact, now that the Republicans are the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, term limits actually work against the Republicans rather than for them.

It is true that term limits are rarely discussed in the directly partisan terms that I have presented them here.

Term-limit supporters do not like to admit that the original support for the idea came from a Republican desire to wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats.

So, for those who want non-partisan reasons to vote against Voluntary Congressional Term Limits, here they are:

·        Term limits narrow the choices available to voters. When you go to the ballot box, you should be able to vote for any candidate you choose. If you like that 10-, 20-, or even 30- year incumbent, you should be free to vote for her or him.

·        Term limits unfairly penalize those with experience and proven skills in elective office. Do you automatically change your doctor every six years, even when he or she has done a great job of keeping you healthy? Do you stop going to your regular vacation spot after six years, even though it remains your favorite place in the whole world? Should married couples automatically divorce after six years, even if they are still madly in love with each other? Voters should have the freedom to continue in office those elected officials who have served them well and demonstrated proven ability at successfully operating our government.

·        Term limits increase the power of congressional staff members, who are not term-limited, and reduce the power of elected U.S. senators and representatives. Political scientists make good money teaching about the complex rules and labyrinthine legislative processes that characterize Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It is a system that places a premium on experience and knowing what has happened in the past. If elected officials are automatically forced out after six years or so in office, the only people who will “know the legislative ropes” will be the legislative bureaucrats who serve as U.S. Senate and U.S. House staff members. I would much rather be governed by an “old hand” who is an elected official, responsible to the voters, than by a paid bureaucrat, responsible to “who-knows-what.”

·        Term limits attack the symptoms and not the underlying problems of electoral democracy in the United States. The real reason that members of the U.S. House of Representatives get re-elected over and over again is that state governments fail to draw competitive U.S. House districts.

Another reason is that incumbents tend to have a great deal more money than challengers have.

If we really want to make it easier for incumbents to be dislodged from office, let’s lobby for more competitive congressional districts and support campaign finance reform.

Term limits just attack the superficial symptoms and leave the root causes of incumbency advantage unchanged.

Once again it is time to reaffirm the idea that voters should have the greatest possible freedom to choose who will represent them in public office.

Vote “Against” the proposed initiative on Voluntary Congressional Term Limits.

Robert D. Loevy is a professor of political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He is the author of “The Manipulated Path To The White House 1996: Maximizing Advantage In The Presidential Selection Process.