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Inside the Beltway: Washington Analysis and Opinion

Twelve-Year Term Limits Twelve Years Later

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

A dozen years ago, flush with their victory in the 1994 congressional elections, the brash new Republican leadership brought H.J. Res. 73 to the floor of the House of Representatives. The resolution would have amended the United States Constitution by imposing 12-year term limits on members of Congress. Senators would have been able to serve a maximum of two full terms, and Representatives would have had to clean out their offices after six terms.

The House passed the bill by a 227 to 204 vote, with 189 Republicans and 38 Democrats supporting it and 40 Republicans, 163 Democrats and 1 Independent opposing it. But the initiative failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed for a Constitutional amendment, and it died formally, at least on the federal level. Still, in the frothy atmosphere of the 1994 “Newtonian” revolution, many members of Congress took a pledge to retire within twelve years, and amazingly some of them remained true to their principles. Count Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee, who last year was Majority Leader of the Senate, among them.

It’s been twelve years since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked his colleagues to take the twelve-year pledge, and it’s time to ask the question, do term limits make sense? Do the good public servants who took the pledge and followed through on their commitment deserve kudos?  For being honest, reliable and principled, without a doubt! But beyond that, have they really done a good deed?

If you think that the best government is the least government, you’d probably say yes. Put in a few years of public service, get out and return to the real world, where markets dictate outcomes.  And get on with a life that really counts.

“But wait, there’s more!” as the late Arthur Schiff, king of the infomercial, used to say as he was slicing and dicing his way to riches peddling his Ginsu knife on late-night TV. Term limits minimize the creation of political fiefdoms and the entrenched policies that go along with them, providing, in the process, the opportunity for the constant churning that lets new ideas bubble up with regularity. Sounds so good, I’m almost ready to buy into it.

But just as I never bought a Ginsu knife, I’m not quite ready to strike the bargain. My experiences on the Hill the last four months will tell you why.

First scroll back to 2005. That January, amid much Washington hoopla, the Council on Competitiveness released its annual competitiveness report, raising questions about the nation’s future economic status on the global stage.  A month later, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation issued its first R&D Benchmarks Report, containing trend lines that painted a grim picture of future U.S. competitiveness in the high-tech arena.

By early spring, key Senators and Representatives had become so alarmed that they asked the National Academies to set up a study panel and quickly recommend policy changes to address the issue. The panel, chaired by Norman Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed-Martin, completed its work in less than six months, and their report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was on the desks of Members of Congress and their staff by the end of October.

A month later, House Democrats issued their “Innovation Agenda” and the Senate began to  draft bipartisan innovation legislation. In short order the White House unveiled the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) that contained a blueprint for doubling the aggregate budgets of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation and the core programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. So imprinted had the competitiveness issue become, that by the summer of 2006, you couldn’t find a House or Senate member or, for that matter, any legislative director in a congressional office, who hadn’t heard about the “Gathering Storm” report or the ACI.

But by midnight on November 6, everyone on Capitol Hill knew that the congressional world was about to be set spinning.With the Democratic victory at the polls, the pecking order was about to change: the minority would become the majority; minor players would become major players; low-level staff would become high-level staff; the ins would become the outs. For the Republican Party as a whole, voters ironically had enforced the twelve-year term limit.

Periodic change is certainly good for government, but with change often comes a loss of institutional memory. Visit a congressional office today and mention the “Gathering Storm” report or ACI, and more often than not, staffers will give you a vacant stare. Talk to any one of the 54 new Representatives and 10 new Senators about innovation and competitiveness, and you will find consternation.

Six months ago, I was mulling over what issue I would personally turn to next, with the matter of science research and education and their connection to global competitiveness fairly well understood by the Hill. Term limits have changed all that. They may not be good for consistency in policy, but they keep lobbyists employed

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff