Broken contract

Republicans find populism is easier when you don't have any power.

Published April 5, 1999 8:31PM (EDT)

Freshman Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., strode to the front of the House floor, full of pride and promise.

It was March 29, 1995, and Nethercutt was debating that day's "Contract With America" pledge: a constitutional amendment limiting the number of terms a member of Congress could serve. Term limits were a big deal to Nethercutt. His surprising 1994 victory against House Speaker Tom Foley was due in no small part to the issue. In stark contrast to the 30-year incumbent he was trying to fell, candidate Nethercutt pledged to serve only three terms. A Wisconsin political action committee, Americans for Limited Terms, ponied up $320,000 in "issue" ads against Foley.

"It was not just a major issue in his race, it was the issue," says Paul Jacob, national director of U.S. Term Limits.

When Nethercutt's fellow freshman Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., offered a hard-line amendment -- one that would limit a member's tenure to six years, or three two-year terms -- Nethercutt wasn't afraid to take the bold step and support Inglis. "The Inglis amendment not only reflects the will of my constituents and the American people, it returns the House of Representatives to the role the Founding Fathers intended: 'the people's House,'" Nethercutt said that day. "Six years provides us enough time to come to this great body, pass laws on behalf of our constituents and then return home to live under those laws."

But a funny thing happened to Nethercutt on the way to his retirement party: He changed his mind about term limits -- for himself, anyway. "Experience has taught me that six years may be too short a time to do the job the people ... elected me to do," Nethercutt has said. A Nethercutt spokesman says that the congressman is spending time in his district, hearing from the voters what they want.

U.S. Term Limits' Jacob, of course, is outraged. He says Nethercutt's pledge to leave the House after three terms "was up on his Web site till last summer. Then one day it mysteriously disappeared." The term-limits promise was deleted at around the same time that Jacob was chagrined to hear that the congressman had purchased a house in the D.C. area.

Five years after they stormed into the majority on their "Contract With America," some of the Republican congressional majority seem to be waffling about fulfilling their populist, anti-government agenda. It's not just backtracking on term limits: There's a decent chance that House Republicans will cut a deal with their Democratic counterparts to ensure that the annual congressional cost-of-living increase, which is usually voted down ceremoniously, somehow slips past the goalie this time. Another endangered populist reform is more obscure but probably more significant: rotating committee chairmanships.

It's not just Republicans who are capable of breaking promises, of course. On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., has long been a term-limits supporter. Before knocking off an incumbent Democrat in his victorious 1992 campaign, Meehan had pledged a self-imposed limit of eight years of service, or four two-year terms. When the Republicans seized control of the House, Meehan supported their term-limits cause. He was the sole Democrat in a group of nine congressmen who sent letters to the clerk of the House instructing her to remove their names from roll call if, somehow, they outlasted their self-imposed limits.

When term limits were defeated in 1995, Meehan was livid. "The whole exercise was nothing more than a big political show designed to confuse people into thinking that House Republicans really support term limits ... I have always been skeptical of the legislators who claim they are for term limits but have been in office for 15 or 20 years. The best test of any politician's credibility on term limits is whether they are willing to put their careers where their mouths are and limit their own service."

But now word is out that Meehan is planning to run for a fifth term. A Meehan aide says that the congressman's work on campaign finance reform is of such importance he needs to stay in the House.

Two other Republican term-limits crusaders -- Florida's Tillie Fowler and Colorado's Scott McInnis -- have also failed to follow through on their pledges to leave. There are at least eight term-limit promise keepers in all: Oregon Democrat Elizabeth Furse and South Carolina Republican Inglis have already departed; Republican Reps. Matt Salmon of Arizona, Charles Canady of Florida, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Jack Metcalf of Washington are planning to.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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