Voters endorse term limits . . . and integrity

Paul Jacob

11/7/2004 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

The media kept telling us that support for term limits was waning. But apparently voters didn't get the memo.

Throughout the year, a steady stream of newspaper articles dumped on term limits. They all shared the same method: a reporter cloistered in the capitol interviewing the politicians and lobbyists who lurk therein. Lo and behold, term limits weren't "working" for these fellows. No sirree.

In those vaulted political cathedrals there just wasn't much support. Of course, the support for term limits from politicians and lobbyists could hardly wane, since they had never supported term limits to begin with.

Finally, on November 2nd, voters in Arkansas and Montana got to write their own story. In both states, voters went to the polls to confront legislator-referred ballot measures that would as much as double legislators' time in office. And they crushed the measures. The margins were massive ? even bigger than when citizens passed these term limit laws by overwhelming percentages a dozen years ago.

Legislators had hoped to convince the public that they just loved the term limits voters slapped on them, but golly gee whiz, didn't voters think that doubling how long they could stay in power would be a big improvement? Voters responded with a polite "NO."

Arkansans defeated Amendment 1 by 70 to 30 percent; Montana voters trounced Constitutional Amendment 42 with a 69?31 margin.

In Montana, legislators put an honest ballot title on their measure. This meant they gave up early, so that neither side spent any real money, though Montana advocates for term limits quickly mobilized more than 1,000 supporters across the state.

But in Arkansas legislators were more cunning. They wrote quite an interesting ballot title to explain their weakening of the limits. Their ballot title didn't bother to mention the effect of the amendment ? to as much as double the limits. Heavens, no need to do that. Instead, it said only that Amendment 1 would "establish term limits."

Polls showed the tricky language worked; voters were tricked. But a grassroots campaign along with TV and radio ads alerted voters in time. The measure went from ahead to behind faster than you can say "Sneaky Politician."

An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report of the results read, "Proposed Amendment 1, which would have expanded the number of terms allowed to state lawmakers and enjoyed strong support around the state Capitol, failed to carry a single county Tuesday and drew only about 30 percent support statewide."

The message is so loud and so clear that even the most citizen-deaf legislators should be able to comprehend: don't touch term limits!

In addition to these lopsided victories, a recent poll in California shows that a whopping 75 percent of voters there support their term limits law. In 2002, Californians had rejected a measure to weaken their law, Proposition 45. Though term limits supporters were outspent $11 million to $1 million, Prop 45 was resoundingly defeated 58 to 42 percent.

That Michigan legislative leaders are now threatening the state's term limits during the lame-duck session just begun is, well, lame. One of the lead conspirators behind the effort, Rep. John Stewart (R-Plymouth), says, "I picture myself as the state Rep from the 20th district for the next eight years. At 55 years old, I don't want to go back to divorces, drunk drivers and auto negligence."

The desperate legislators have even begun talking about giving back some of the pay raise they grabbed a couple years ago. Ah, bribery! Or as Rep. Stewart puts it, they'd be willing to "sweeten the pot." Sure to make folks think they deserve that extra pay, eh? Or extra term?

On November 2nd, voters furthered not only term limits, but integrity. They sent three gentlemen to the U.S. Senate who had previously made and kept pledges to step down after serving three terms in the U.S. House. Tom Coburn was elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma, Jim DeMint from South Carolina, and John Thune from South Dakota.

Thune defeated the Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who repeatedly told his constituents that they would be voting to leave the front of the line for congressional pork if they didn't re-elect him. South Dakota voters, like voters across this country when given the choice, opted for integrity over pork and sent Daschle to . . . another line.

Voters also ended the poisoned political career of George Nethercutt. Nethercutt defeated Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994 on a pledge to limit his own terms in Congress to three. But then, unable to muster the character to resist the power and privilege of Washington, he broke his word. Nethercutt's campaign for the Senate faced two hurdles: an incumbent Senator and a woeful lack of excitement from voters. Funny that voters couldn't muster any enthusiasm for sending just another selfish career politician to D.C. Nethercutt lost, 55?43.

While the power of incumbency is so great that voters have little leverage to hold congressmen to pledges on term limits ? or, as I often lament in my Common Sense e-letter, anything else for that matter ? it is worth noting that those who have kept their word on term limits have gone on to become governors and senators, while not a single pledge-breaker has won higher office.

Voters like term limits and they like integrity. When will the media read that memo?