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Term Limits: Are New Lawmakers Serious About Them?

First Posted: 11/10/10 02:25 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:10 PM ET

New Jersey Congress
Incoming New Jersey Republican Congressman John Runyan

Are you worried about the long-term effects of the incoming group of GOP freshmen? Well, Politico reports today that you really have nothing at all to fear, because of an outbreak of "term-limit fever" that's taken hold of your newly minted class of lawmakers. Now, ask yourself: do you really believe that any of these freshman legislators will keep a promise to limit their stay in Washington? If you answered in the affirmative, please head to the nearest mirror and introduce yourself to the most naive person in America!

How widespread is "term-limit fever?" Well, Politico successfully cites statements from five incoming members of the House of Representatives: Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Allen West (R-Fla.), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), and Tim Griffin (R-Ark.). (Elsewhere, Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rand Paul (R-Kent.) "voice their support" for term limits, without making any promise of self-imposed limits.)

Now, you might recall that the total size of the incoming class of Republican freshmen numbers in the eighties. However, according to the laws of journalism, five examples of anything are two more than is necessary to write a trend piece, and so, VOILA: TERM-LIMIT FEVAH!

As it turns out, there is not a lot of broad consensus as to how many terms constitutes a "limit":

The self-imposed limits typically range from six to 12 years. Mike Fitzpatrick, who won back the suburban Philadelphia seat he lost in 2006, has said he plans to serve a maximum of three terms. Allen West of south Florida has pledged to serve a maximum of four terms. Rep.-elect David Schweikert of Arizona said he would serve no more than six terms.


"By term limiting myself to eight years, I can focus on doing what it takes to solve the nation's problems, instead of doing what it takes to further my political ambitions," read a press release issued by Rep.-elect Jon Runyan of New Jersey after his primary victory.

"Oh, hey, I promise to stay for only six terms, but that's it," isn't exactly the most convincing display of careerist restraint I've ever heard, but Politico insists that this constitutes the revival of "a once-white-hot issue that had gone cold in recent years." And why, pray tell, has it gone cold?

The decline of the term limits movement can be traced to the experience of the last sizable group of Republican freshmen, the class of 1994, which swept into Washington on a platform that included term limits as a prominent feature.


But the Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to term limits in 1995, ruling that states could not limit the amount of time federal lawmakers spent in office and that the only way for Congress to enact term limits legislation was through a constitutional amendment -- a steep hill to climb. That year, the House brought up a term limits amendment but fell short of the 290 votes needed for passage.

The movement was further crippled by the class of 1994 itself, as members began to renege on their self-imposed limits when their time was up.

I mean, fancy that! The pharmacological remedy for term-limit fever appears to be actually taking a vote on a term limits amendment, which then clears the infection from the host body entirely.

Look, here's how this works: anytime you get a bunch of lawmakers vaguely pledging to "reform the system," you'll get a few in the mix who promise to leave office after a few terms. Typically, that's the sort of talk you hear before they arrive in Washington. But once they arrive and start getting their beaks wet in those piles of K Street boodle, the promises of a short tenure in public service start to give way to the ease of incumbency and the allure of never having to worry about how you will keep yourself and your family in the lap of luxury ever again.

So, in short, to Mssrs. Fitzpatrick, West, Schweikert, Griffin, and Runyan, I say: You guys are adorable. Yes you are! Yes you are!

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