Most everyone seems to agree on term limits but career politicians

M.D. Kittle
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Jul 08, 2014 5:00 AM
Most everyone seems to agree on term limits but career politicians

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — For voters who fancy congressional term limits, state Sen. Glenn Grothman might just be their man.

Grothman, one of three Republicans running for Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, on Monday sent out a press release pledging that, if elected, he would limit his tenure in the House to 10 years.

In so doing, he took a shot at career politician Petri.

“Over the last three months as I’ve traveled throughout the 6th district meeting voters, I’ve heard a great deal of concern that they will get another congressman who will be in Washington for 35 years like Congressman Petri,” said Grothman, who moved from West Bend to Campbellsport to run for the seat.

“I, therefore, pledge to serve in Congress for a maximum of 10 years, or five terms. The issues facing America are so pressing that we need to act now or we might lose our country altogether,” the candidate added.

Grothman’s fellow contestants in the Republican primary, state Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, and state Rep. Duey Stroebel, R-Town of Cedarburg, have pledged to limit their time in the House, too.

“I am a citizen legislator, who got into public service to get things done — not to make it a career,” Stroebel said in a statement that picks at Grothman’s and Leibham’s combined 40 years in politics.

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SIGN OF THE TIMES?: Most everyone approves of term limits (with the exception of incumbent politicians), but voters continue to elect the same people. What’s the disconnect?

Leibham, in a statement to Wisconsin Reporter, said he supports term limits because too many members of Congress stay in Washington to “enhance their own self interests instead of working to improve the well-being of our country.” He said he would self-limit his time in the House to six terms, or 12 years.

While self-imposed term limits may be well-intentioned, they don’t attack the core of corruption and incompetence in Washington, D.C., according to Nick Tomboulides, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a Fairfax, Va..-based organization that has been advocating for term limits at all levels of government for more than 20 years.

“If, indeed, a candidate is self-limiting at 10 years, that doesn’t really move the ball forward,” said Tomboulides, whose organization’s motto is, “Citizen Legislators, Not Career Politicians.”

“His own limit is not going to dramatically overhaul corruption in Congress. If (the 6th Congressional District candidates) want to take substantive action, (they) should sign our pledge and get on the bill.”

U.S. Term Limits once fully supported the concept of self-limiting, but has since pushed for a constitutional amendment on congressional term limits because — get ready to be shocked — so many members of Congress broke their term limit pledges.

“We found that only the good guys were leaving, that the statesmen were abiding by their pledge and going home and the career politicians were staying,” Tomboulides said. “It didn’t have the impact of fixing Washington as we had hoped.”

Indeed, out of 1994’s 39 self-limiting freshmen, 13, or 33 percent, broke their pledges of various lengths, according to information from U.S. Term Limits and Roll Call.

Among the promise-breakers were U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio’s 14th Congressional District, who finally stepped down last year to launch a lobbying firm, and U.S. Rep. Richard Norman “Doc” Hastings, a Republican serving Washington’s 4th Congressional District.

U.S. Term Limit supports a constitutional amendment that would limit House members to three terms, or six years, and senators to two terms, or 12 years.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, is one of 12 incumbent sponsors of the Senate Joint Resolution 2, and there are 17 sponsors in the House.

The list of Wisconsin candidates to sign the amendment pledge has yet to be released. It was a short gathering in 2012, including only failed U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde, a Republican, and unsuccessful House candidates Daniel Sebring and Chad Lee, both Republicans.

Don’t look for many incumbents on the pledge list.

Tomboulides said while more than 170 congressional candidates have signed the pledge this session, very few incumbents have done so.

Leibham tells Wisconsin Reporter he would support a constitutional amendment applying the same term limit rules to everybody.

Democratic politicians generally are not interested in term limits, but Republicans have varying ideas of what term limits should be, Tomboulides said. That inability to reach a consensus has proved a huge stumbling block for the movement, he said.

While most political incumbents don’t much care for term limits, their constituents do — at least according to poll data.

A 2013 Gallup poll found 75 percent of respondents say that, given the opportunity, they would vote for term limits for members of both houses of Congress. The poll of 1,013 adults in all 50 states had a margin of error rate of 4 percent.

Term limits appear to be a bipartisan issue: 82 percent of Republicans said they supported limiting congressional terms, while 65 percent of Democrats did.

The disconnect, Tomboulides said, is between the career politicians and the electorate.

But there also is an enormous gap between voters’ intentions and their actions. In 2012, like most every other major election years, Americans re-elected most of the sitting members of the U.S. House and Senate.

Opponents of term limits say artificial restrictions kill continuity and experience in law-making, and that they are inherently un-American.

In 2011, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, asked Nevada lawmakers to get rid of term limits for elected state officials, a move that would stand in defiance of the wishes of voters who approved the restrictions in 1994 and 1996.

“We don’t need artificial term limits,” Reid said during his speech. “After all, we already have natural ones. They’re called elections.”

Proponents of limits say incumbency is where the real corruption in Congress lies.

It’s astoundingly difficult to defeat an incumbent. U.S. House re-election rates have been north of 90 percent for much of the past 50 years, and never below 85 percent over that time.

“What we find is the lack of term limits and competition erects a barrier to entry for prospective challenger,” Tomboulides said. “Challengers face a daunting task of getting elected because the fundraising bar is so high and the name recognition bar is so high.”

The folks at U.S. Term Limits like to say getting a career politician to sign off on a term limits pledge is like getting a chicken to vote for Colonel Sanders. It is asking a politician to act against his own self-interest — and there are a lot of perks and benefits in being a member of Congress.

Tomboulides said it will take a significant grassroots effort to turn the page on term limits. Adopting the amendment would require a supermajorty of support in the House and Senate, and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

“I am asking everyone I know to pressure candidates for Congress” to sign the amendment pledge, Tomboulides said. “That’s the only way to get this done. I don’t think politicians living in the lap of luxury are going to change this.”

Want term limits?

U.S. Term Limits is trying to send a message to Congress that membership is not a lifetime guarantee. The organization, according to its executive director, has collected 265,000 signatures on an online petition supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting the terms of federal lawmakers. The group is aiming for 1 million.

Find more information, visit here.

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