Term Limits: The Ties That Bind Too Tightly

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As Republicans crank up the election machinery for the next congressional election, a small group of congressmen are feeling a particular pang: Should they honor the pledge they made in 1994, in conjunction with the failed term-limit plank of the Contract with America, to quietly exit in 2000? At least 10 GOP incumbents face that question. The answer has implications for the personal and political integrity of each member -- and for the continued Republican control of Congress.

To the chagrin of some party insiders, six GOP Representatives have already announced they will abide by their pledges and not seek reelection in 2000. But the number six is crucial: It's exactly the margin of votes by which Republicans currently control the House of Representatives. In the shark-infested waters of politics, nothing draws an opposing party faster than an open seat. That's because incumbents enjoy a reelection rate of more than 95 percent. The best chance of a party turnover occurs when a seat opens up.

Listen to John Del Cecato, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who can hardly contain his excitement: "We have a great opportunity because our odds are exponentially increased by open seats. In 1998, Democrats won 11 of the 18 competitive seats available. Moreover, several of the Republican incumbents who have signed the pledge to resign in 2000 represent districts that President Clinton carried in 1996, among them Tom Coburn, Jack Metcalf and George Nethercutt."

Jill Schroeder, Del Cecato's counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee, avows that "Republicans still believe in term limits." But she admits that the party "would welcome the possibility of having some self-limiters run again in 2000." The position of Tom Davis, chairman of the committee, is to leave the decision to run to each member as a "matter of conscience," she says. And for some the decision is proving difficult to reach -- and, not coincidentally, delicate to announce.

One of those caught in the bind is J. C. Watts, head of the House Republican Conference, the only black Republican in Congress and one of the party's fastest-rising stars. "He supported term limits," says his chief of staff, Pam Pryor, "and he still does. But he doesn't know what he's going to do in 2000." Why? "Because he's still weighing what's in the best interest of his district." But he promised, didn't he? "Yes, and it's a good idea," says Pryor, "but it works only if everybody lives under the same rules."

The noisiest and most vocal lobbying group on the issue doesn't believe it needs to wait until everyone agrees. Not only does U.S. Term Limits plan a $20 million blitz for 2000 to elect a growing block of term limiters, the group is also going against term limiters who are hedging now. "We view it as a matter of personal integrity," says national director Paul Jacob.

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