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How Not to Lobby

U.S. Term Limits all but killed a popular cause through inflexibility and meanness.

For a lesson in how not to lobby, look no further than the recently failed attempt to enact congressional term limits. In 1995 term limits had won overwhelming voter approval in 23 states, and the issue was one of the ten planks of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. But its lead interest group, U.S. Term Limits, committed two fundamental lobbying errors: It refused to compromise, and then it attacked supporters for deviating even slightly from what it considered the righteous path. According to GOP Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, a term-limits enthusiast: "For U.S. Term Limits, winning meant defeating everything except its own view, which has hurt the movement considerably."

At the insistence of New York developer Howie Rich, U.S. Term Limits' president and major benefactor, the organization prescribed one, and only one, kind of limit: three two-year terms for the House and two six-year terms for the Senate. Why three House terms? Because public opinion polls of term-limit backers indicated three terms is what they liked best. That sounds like a preference, but to Rich and his associates, the poll results were akin to divine sanction.

Watch

Politicians like Bob Inglis, Republican of South Carolina, pleaded with U.S. Term Limits to be flexible; six terms was the most popular alternative, he told them, because it gave lawmakers in both chambers 12-year limits. "But they refused," Inglis recalls. "They said, 'If you get in our way, we'll mow you down.' " And in fact, lawmakers who didn't support U.S. Term Limits' position were labeled traitors to the cause in advertisements. Worse, at the group's urging, nine states passed "scarlet letter" laws that placed next to the names of candidates on the ballot a notation stating whether they supported a specified type of limit. Such coercion is resented on Capitol Hill and has resulted in a deep decline in the issue's prospects. Today, Rich says he was naive to think politicians would ever curtail their own service. Then again, his actions have assured that they probably never will.

Several GOP leaders who have abandoned the cause assert privately that U.S. Term Limits doesn't really want to win but instead wants to use the movement for its own fundraising purposes. Even Cleta Mitchell, once Washington's most visible proponent of term limits, has given up. At the urging of her friends in Congress, Mitchell has taken a job with the National Federation of Independent Business. Says Mitchell: The views of people who run U.S. Term Limits are "nuts."





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