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Have term limits reached their limit?
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Did I miss something in Philadelphia and Los Angeles? Or have two words -- term limits -- disappeared from the political lexicon?
"It was an issue of voter anger in 1994," says Jim Dornan, campaign manager for Rep. George Nethercutt of Washington. "There's just not that voter anger out there any more."
Politically, the issue is on a back burner. Legally, the Supreme Court has chilled it once and could put it on ice in an upcoming case this term.
That's good news for Nethercutt. The three-term Republican congressman is the poster boy for term limit advocates. In 1994, Nethercutt knocked then House Speaker Tom Foley out of office. Nethercutt's pledge to only serve three terms, unlike the long-serving Democrat Foley, was a key to his success.
This year Nethercutt decided three terms was not long enough.
"He couldn't get done what he wanted to get done," Dornan explains.
Nethercutt is "in a lot of trouble," according to Paul Jacob of U.S. Term Limits, an advocacy group which has targeted the Washington congressman because of his reversal. Nethercutt faces a primary challenge on September 19.
"The issue is whether George broke his word or not," says campaign manager Dornan. "Well, he changed his mind."
If Nethercutt wins a fourth term in Congress, it may be because American voters have changed their mind. Term limits were a key pledge in the 1994 campaign that put Republicans in the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40years.
Many in the Republican class of '94 -- Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Matt Salmon of Arizona, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- have kept their pledge and are not seeking reelection for a fourth term.
Not that they couldn't. Neither the Republican nor Democratic party raises the issue.
Al Gore served eight years each in the House and Senate. George W. Bush saw no need to push for term limits in Texas.
Committee chairs and leadership positions
The Republican Party platform mentions only that, as a result of that 1994 Republican revolution, the party "set term limits for committee chairs and leadership positions." Those limits are one reason why powerful committee chairs--Bill Archer on Ways and Means, Thomas Bliley on Commerce, Bill Goodling on Education, John Kasich on Budget -- are all retiring from the House this year. They'd have to turn over their chairmanships. But that's a price the Republicans have inflicted on themselves.
U.S. Term Limits still wants congressional candidates to "take the pledge" not to serve more than three House or two Senate terms.
The organization lost its 1995 foray into the Supreme Court -- U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton -- when the court ruled that Arkansas had unconstitutionally sought to exclude three-term congressmen and two-term senators from appearing again on a ballot.
Justice John Paul Stevens noted that "the Framers unanimously rejected a proposal to add such limits to the Constitution." So term limits could only be imposed by a constitutional amendment, not by the state of Arkansas. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limits presidents to serving two terms.
Missouri's label law
In spite of the Arkansas ruling, a 1996 Missouri voter initiative enacted a law instructing each senator and representative from Missouri "to use all his or her delegated powers to pass the Congressional Term Amendment." But the law went farther.
A member of Congress who did not would find the label "Disregarded Voters' Instruction on Term Limits" next to his or her name on any ballot.
A candidate for Congress who did not take a term limits pledge would be labeled "Declined to Pledge to Support Term Limits."
The case -- Cook v. Gralike -- is scheduled for argument on November 6, the day before election day. Lawyers in the case say it is more about labeling than about term limits.
"It's fundamentally about the ballot and a corruption of the ballot process," says attorney Jonathan Franklin who will argue the case for Donald Gralike and Mike Harman, two 1988 congressional candidates who declined to take Missouri's pledge.
Supporters of the Label Law say it's a way of informing voters. Opponents say it's a "Scarlet Letter" meant to shame a candidate in the way the scarlet "A" was meant to shame Hester Prynne as an adulteress.
Label laws have been passed and thrown out by courts in at least nine states. Only California's Proposition 225 was ever implemented in an election before being struck down. In one state assembly race, an "unlabeled" Green Party candidate defeated a "labeled" Democrat who declined to support term limits.
The case before the Supreme Court applies only to Congressional candidates whose qualifications for office are spelled out in the Constitution. Term limits exist broadly for state and local offices -- governors, mayors and some 18 state legislatures.
But there is an ebb and flow to those local term limit efforts. In Maryland this election, Prince George's County voters will decide a ballot initiative to lift term-limit restrictions. In neighboring Montgomery County where I live and vote, one activist lawyer has gathered more than 14,000 signatures for a ballot measure to limit the top county officials to two terms.
Personally, I favor the ultimate term limit--if you don't like 'em, vote 'em out!
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