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Republican Terms Unlimited

April 14, 2006

In 1994, the GOP rode the Contract with America and its call for term limits to an overwhelming victory in the midterm elections. Newt Gingrich, the architect of the '94 Republican Revolution, saw the term limits pledge as an essential ingredient to retaking the House. But in 1991, Gingrich called terms limits "a terrible idea." To no one's surprise, many of his Republican colleagues who took the pledge now agree with him.
As CQPolitics reports, Tennessee Representative Zach Wamp and Arizona's Jeff Flake are among 8 House Republicans breaking their three-terms-and-out oath. The others include Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, Phil English of Pennsylvania, Timothy V. Johnson of Illinois, Ric Keller of Florida, Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey and Mark Souder of Indiana. As the story noted, apparently no penalty applies for breach of Contract with America: "All are seeking re-election; all are solid favorites to win."
Arizona's Jeff Flake is an excellent example of the cynicism and hypocrisy of the one-time GOP commitment to term limits. A rising star in party, Flake now says of his campaign 2000 pledge, "It was a mistake to limit my own terms." With the GOP now solidly in control of the House, Flake claims that the party's term limits movement "just petered out." Flake's assessment that his pledge was "a big mistake" no doubt disappointed his supporters at U.S. Terms Limits, who crowed in 2000 that "Arizona's first district now clearly has a great term limits tradition."
Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is another member of the '94 Republican class who casually decided to break her two-term pledge. Last summer, Hutchison announced she would run for a third Senate term rather than challenge Republican incumbent Rick Perry in the race for Governor. But on election night in 1994, Hutchison made a commitment to term limits:

"I've always said that I would serve no more than two full terms. This may be my last term, or I could run for one more. But no more after that. I firmly believe in term limitations and I plan to adhere to that."

As it turns out, not so much. According to USA Today, Senator Hutchison now says "she still supports term limits but would not bind herself unless senators from other states also left after two terms."
One Republican who may eventually have paid a price for violating his term limits pledge was Washington's George Nethercutt. In 1994, Nethercutt led the wave of GOP term limiters, sweeping out 30 year Democratic veteran Tom Foley. But by 1999, Nethercutt unsurprisingly had a change of heart. But Nethercutt and other Republican "term limit traitors" suffered no payback, at least not until 2004. His comeuppance came in a 55%-43% loss in a Senate race against Democrat Patty Murray. While President Bush in 2004 called Nethercutt a "decent man who not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk", the voters of Washington state clearly thought otherwise.
Fast forward to 2006 and Republican opportunists like Tennessee's Zach Wamp are calling their term limit pledges "a mistake." His opponent in the 3rd district, Democrat Terry Stulce, says he plans to "help Zach keep his word on at least one promise he made in 1994." If history is any judge, it is Stulce's prospects that seem limited.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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