Power Play

Posted January 7, 2003 at 3:16pm

A key part of the successful Republican Revolution in 1994 was a promise to institute term limits for House Members and leaders as a way of installing “citizen legislators” and doing away with “professional politicians.” We opposed the idea from the beginning out of deference to the Constitution and respect for the institution of Congress. Now, we don’t know whether to cheer or smirk as the former revolutionaries abandon their old principle.

The GOP Conference vote Tuesday repealing the eight-year limit for the Speakership is only the latest sign that Republicans have gotten used to power and, like the Democrats who ruled for 40 years before them, want to secure the benefits of control. There was no need to hurry in lifting the limit for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Elected to the Speakership in December 1998, he was not due to leave the post until January 2007.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), who made the motion to remove the limit on the Speaker’s tenure, argued that he was doing so because of the “tremendous respect in our Conference” for Hastert. He also said that “neither the House nor our Conference is best served by having a date certain for him to step down.” As a freshman Congressman in 1997, Blunt was an advocate of term limits. Now, as the No. 3 man in the leadership team, he’s clearly interested in continuity and stability for the team put into place by now-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas).

Clearly, Republicans are for term limits when they are useful and are opposed to them when they’re inconvenient. They apply to committee and subcommittee chairmen, which strengthens the hand of leadership and also opens the way for loyal back-benchers to rise in power. (Undependable potential chairmen often find themselves cast aside.)

The principle of convenience also applies to individual Members, the most notorious of whom is Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who ousted Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) in 1994 on a pledge to serve only two terms and then abandoned the promise in 1998. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), also elected in 1994, at least strongly implied to voters that he would serve only two six-year terms. Now that he’s Majority Leader with four years to go before he’d have to leave office, his spokesman is saying that Frist “never made a pledge” to limit his tenure.

We’d like to think that Republicans have come to see that the framers of the Constitution were right in establishing no limits on Congressional service and that artificial limits would deprive Congress and the nation of the service of experienced politicians. But the party’s off-again, on-again application of the principle suggests to us that, like Democrats, Republicans just like power.