Term Limits: Not Over By a Long Shot

Published June 14, 1995

Former House Speaker Tom Foley convened a press conference to announce his vindication after the Supreme Court’s ruling that state-imposed term limits were unconstitutional. “Term limits is dead,” Foley said, adding “I think [term-limit backers] are going to push very hard to keep this ill-considered movement alive.”

Foley, the first sitting House Speaker to lose reelection since the Civil War, has every reason to gloat over his hoped-for demise of the issue that cost him his seat in Congress. And he’s correct when he says term-limit supporters will do everything possible to keep the issue alive.

The Court’s decision blocks most avenues for state action on term limits. It has been in the states that term-limit supporters have earned their greatest success. Since 1990, when Colorado passed the first federal term-limit law, 23 states have adopted co ngressional term limits. In all but two of those states, victory came from the ballot box, usually by two- or three-to-one margins.

In Congress, however, term limits have had a much more difficult time. The House of Representatives voted on four separate term-limit amendments in March, but only one, sponsored by eight-term Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) earned a majority of the vote.

That amendment, while broadly supported among incumbents, had only tepid public support because it sought to set a generous 12-year limit on House and Senate service. Most Americans, by contrast, prefer a six-year (three-term) limit on House members.

Incumbents like McCollum consider themselves and their version of term limits to be the only game in town. That’s not so. Term-limit activists have several options for achieving a constitutional amendment, few of which require the support of incumbent con gressmen.

One strategy under consideration is moving ahead with an amendment that would hold House members to three terms and Senators to two terms. While such an amendment enjoys little support on Capitol Hill, especially among senior incumbents, the amendment is very popular among new members of Congress.

Translating that base of support into more votes will require that term-limit backers augment any traditional lobbying campaign with an aggressive, bipartisan voter education campaign in 1996. Voter education–that is, making public the term-limit stances of incumbents and challengers during the election–has proven itself an effective method of changing the face of Congress. In 1994, voter education efforts in Tom Foley’s race, as well as in those of Dan Rostenkowski, Jack Brooks, and others, saw voters c hoose the term-limit supporter over the opponent almost every time.

A concerted, nationwide effort targeting the term-limit positions of both Republican and Democratic incumbents (particularly those who won by slim margins in 1994) will add considerable muscle to any campaign that activists mount in favor of an amendment. Such a process will take time and resources. But both the women’s suffrage movement and the crusade for direct election of Senators reveal that, given time and dedication, congressional opposition can be overcome.

Another option, favored by more radical term-limit backers, is to bypass Congress altogether and instead work at the state level to garner support for a constitutional convention. To support that strategy, new initiative campaigns would be aimed directly at state legislators. The idea is to bind state legislators, through the initiative process, to vote for a convention of the states. Even if successful in all 24 states that allow for initiative, supporters would be several states short of the 38 needed t o call a convention. Making up the difference would require lobbying efforts in the remainder of the states–a difficult task given the opposition from both the left and right to the idea of a constitutional convention.

In either case, the Supreme Court has made getting term limits more difficult in the short run, while doing little to cool voters’ enthusiasm for the idea. Even in his majority opinion striking down state-imposed term limits, Justice John Paul Stevens not ed that “such limits may provide for the infusion of fresh ideas and new perspectives, and may decrease the likelihood that representatives will lose touch with their constituents.”

That is the root of term-limit support. So long as Congress remains incapable of passing a constitutional amendment limiting terms, and so long as the occupant of the White House opposes term limits, the public will remain dedicated to the issue and its u ltimate passage.

The fight is not over, nor is it now simply a matter for Congress to decide in its own good time. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.” We remain united in purpose. That is why term lim its will succeed.

Norman Leahy is executive director of the U.S. Term Limits Foundation in Washington, D.C.