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SPOKANE, Wash. and LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—It's the kudzu of contemporary politics. While crime bills bloom and fade, and health care reform plans mutate, the issue of term limits slowly gains ground. Politicians turn their backs for a dozen or so years, and when they turn around they find their constituents have been working to keep political office from remaining the job of a lifetime. The issue has overtaken entire states-15 to be exact. And although this summer was touted as a season of reform, real reform could take place in nine other states as well as the District of Columbia in November, when they consider term-limits initiatives on their ballots. Mississippi will consider the issue in 1995.
Congressmen and senators are hacking away at this creeping change in politics-as-usual, however, and lawsuits from two states, Arkansas and Washington, are heading for the Supreme Court. Lower courts rulings have tended to favor sitting politicians in their fight to keep their offices, but if the Supreme Court abides by 25 years' worth of case law allowing restrictions on candidates for office, then term limits could take root, supporters such as the Heritage Foundation contend.
Nebraska will have to vote on the issue again, even though in 1992 term limits passed by a 2-to-1 margin. That state's Supreme Court decided after the vote that there weren't enough signatures on the original petition.
The Kudzu is thick in Arkansas in the late summer, and so is the feeling that fueled a successful term-limits campaign in 1991. Support for incumbents seems to be declining; as one banker said in the small town of Sheridon, "Nobody here has anything good to say about Clinton, although dang near everyone voted for him." Next time, he said, Arkansans might just opt for a change.
In Spokane, something is missing: The voters don't seem to be upset-or in many cases, even aware-that their representative, Speaker of the House Tom Foley, is suing them in federal court because they approved term limits.
The city is clean and comfortably overbuilt; parks and streets were designed to accommodate a World's Fair, and even a summertime crowd of tourists failed to fill either. If anything, the city is overpopulated with western-theme clothing stores and espresso bars incongruously close together. On a July weekday, the county Republican chair referred questions about Foley's lawsuit to state Republican officials; when contacted, those officials seemed caught off-guard.
"Well, I guess it's not that big of a deal for us now," said one. "We had the election [approving term limits], and the lawsuit hasn't gotten to the Supreme Court, so it's not much of an issue right now."
Tim Jacob, an Arkansas term-limits activist, sees this schizophrenia-throw the rascals out, but not my rascal-and he attributes at least some of it to a reliance on the federal pork-barrel spending that Foley, as speaker of the House, is able to bring home. The voters should be indignant, he says.
"He's going against the very heart of our system," he said. "The voters decided the issue already. And I think when it gets to the Supreme Court, you'll see the fire fueled."
As a Republican in a state run by and for the Democratic party, Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Mike Huckabee says his is a job no sensible person would want to keep.
The former Baptist minister has married the issue of term limits to the hope of ever making Arkansas a two-party state. Without powerful incumbents "and their tax-supported press agents" to battle, GOP candidates have a chance to gain ground; until then, he says, he's the easy target of those standing against a seasonal change in representatives, such as the state's largest newspaper.
His upset victory over Clinton-backed Nate Coulter in July 1993 upset not only the pundits, but also the politicos in a state that has seen only one other Republican lieutenant governor in 100 years. The Little Rock political machine is starting to realize there's a wrench in the works: An entire second party, complete with candidates, balloons, and the support of a small but increasing number of voters.
Mr. Huckabee points to the day's newspaper, which took a few shots at him-it criticized his suggestions for handling political appointments and his refusal to provide the newspaper with a client list of his speaking engagements (those are his main source of income). "This is constant," Mr. Huckabee says of his pummeling. "I don't think it's going to get any better, or that I'm ever going to be more accepted."
And Mr. Huckabee points to his office door-a door that the secretary of state ordered nailed shut when Mr. Huckabee was elected. He was forced to work from makeshift quarters in the state capitol for 59 days until that 'miscommunication' was resolved. "That was my welcome to the capitol," he says. "I call it [the secretary of state's] form of capitol punishment."
Mr. Huckabee was issued a state vehicle, as were all other newly elected officials. "It had 130,000 miles on it, it had been in two wrecks, the molding was torn off one side and the air conditioning didn't work," he says. "I now use my own car, but I've gotten tickets for parking in my designated parking place."
He grins a little as he leans against a file cabinet. "That's only a couple of examples. Good thing I won't be here for long."
That's the result of a term-limits law passed by 60 percent of Arkansas voters in 1992, which is being challenged by sitting lawmakers and the league of Women Voters. The law limits the tenure of state and federal office holders to varied but reasonable tenures, according to Mr. Huckabee. For a small minority of those politicians, that's just fine.
"Hopefully I'll be elected this term, and that will be it for me in this post," Mr. Huckabee says. "I think term limits will be a good thing for the country, and after getting this job, I know they'll be a good thing for me."
When Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency in 1992, 14 states overwhelmingly passed term limits. In Wyoming 77 percent of voters said yes. Similar results were seen from Florida to Washington state, from Michigan to California. Along with Colorado, which passed its term-limits bill in 1990, there are now 15 states with term-limits laws. Eight other states have provisions for this sort of citizen-driven initiative to be placed on the ballot-and each of those states has one slated for the November elections.
For the remaining states, a constitutional amendment will be required.
Activists in those states admit they presently have little hope of convincing sitting legislators to vote themselves out of office out of the goodness of their hearts; they instead hope that the widespread movement and unhindered success of term-limits initiatives in other states will draw their lawmakers into the spirit of reform. They can cite the strength of the movement; nationwide, 21 million people have voted aye. More than 3.5 million signed petitions to get the issue on the ballots in the first place. Term-limits supporters can also boast about the bipartisanship of the effort: Even in an election year, conservatives such as U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) have joined with liberals such as U.S. Rep. Karen Shepherd (D-Utah.)
Most initiatives have similar specifics for federal officeholders: two terms in the Senate and three in the House of Representatives.
Significant opposition to term limits can be found among Republicans and Democrats alike. Hoekstra's bill to put a referendum on the November ballot is locked in committee and has little chance of emerging. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights held hearings in November 1993, but the committee has failed to act since then.
There's also judicial opposition to the idea. At this point, it's a race between Washington state and Arkansas as to which will arrive at the Supreme court first. The court will likely hear one of the two, although it could combine the suits and make ruling that binds both states.
Tim Jacob says he had already made up his mind about term limits when he got a call from his brother in 1991. Paul Jacob-"my younger brother, so I still tell him what to do, usually"-was a consultant to a group pushing term limits, among other issues (in 1992, he became the head of U.S. Term Limits, a non-partisan group leading the national effort).
"He asked what I thought about term limits, and I told him I was against them," the older brother says. "Then he asked me why. Well, it takes the voters' choice away, I said. But then he pointed out that three times as many candidates would be running, and that got my attention."
In an election for an open seat, more candidates with less money are able to run. They don't face the incumbent's entrenched machine. In 1992, for example, the average incumbent spent $629,000, while the average challenger spent $12,000 (that includes fringe candidates, who often spend no money at all.) A more accurate picture can be seen in Mr. Huckabee's first run for political office, a race for a state senate seat. He was outspent 3-to-1 and was trounced, Mr. Jacob pointed out.
"Candidates will come out of the woodwork if they feel they have a chance," the soft-spoken elder (age 37) Jacob says. "Term limits aren't limits on voters, they're limits on politicians. When I realized that, I was all for them."
Somehow, Mr. Jacob, a Little Rock businessman, found himself at the center of a widening gyre of support for term limits. With time, a meeting with "a couple of guys" turned into a movement with support from all corners of the state.
"Everything just began falling together, and it wasn't from our skill," he says. "We had a saying, 'If we can't control this thing it's not big enough.' And we couldn't control it-we couldn't get the petition drives going, we couldn't get our message out-but then it caught. The Clarence Thomas hearings came at just the right time. That was one of the greatest indictments of Congress in our time, and it fueled our effort. I don't think we did that good of a job, but that means the issue won on its own merits."
The battle was heated, and the initiative (written by volunteer lawyers) was "picked apart again and again." But more than 100,000 signatures were gathered (in a state of 2.2 million residents) and the initiative passed with almost two thirds of the votes.
Tim Jacob, who admits to a good bit of experience in political campaigns, says this was the most important he's ever worked on. It will bring about more change and more reform than any candidate the voters elect, he says.
"What's different about it is that there's no agenda to be won," he says. "We don't even talk policy-this has nothing to do with policy. The only thing term limits do is revitalize the idea of a citizen legislature. It makes sure that the message-not the messenger-is what's important."
The window of opportunity offered by Clarence Thomas is again being opened, this time by the antics of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), Tim Jacobs says. His brother and U.S. Term Limits have named 18-termer Rostenkowski the poster boy for term limits. The poster plays up the 17 indictments "Rosty, the Postman" has been handed down by a federal grand jury investigating the House post office scandal. Mr. Rostenkowski has served in Congress for 36 years.
"We've thrived by politicians making mistakes and making the people who elected them mad," Tim Jacob says. "And we know that politicians making mistakes is something we can count on."
The Bible is as silent on the subject of term limits as the Constitution. Mr. Huckabee acknowledges that there's no Christian position on the issue-people of good faith can be found on both sides of the debate.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), hero of the pro-life movement, is a firm believer that term limits undermine the voter's right to elect the candidate of their choice. Mr. Hyde, a 10-term congressman, says experience is crucial.
"Where do you develop this self-confidence, the experience, the wisdom, the judgment to be able to negotiate issues of war and peace?" Mr. Hyde asked in a recent committee meeting.
"Where does a country get these people? Out of a hat? No. You get these people out of the crucible of politics. This is a tough, important job. It can't be fulfilled by walking through a revolving door."
The term "careerist" is now pejorative, he said. "But when my brain is being operated on, I want a careerist to do it. And the notion that you can leave your plow in the field and ride your horse to Washington and ride back, that was fine 200 years ago; not today."
But the groundswell of support for term limits today shows that maybe that horse should be untethered again. If term limits in and of themselves aren't necessarily good or bad, at least some merit can be found in the idea of shaking things up every so often, Mr. Huckabee says. There is also the factor that with power comes temptation, and temptation is to be avoided. There's the historical factor: A citizen legislature was the intention of the framers of the Constitution, and it can be achieved now through term limits, he contends.
"Term limits make sure that every now and then we have someone going in who is fresh from the real world and the communities they represent," he says. "Senators, for example, make laws on businesses and they don't have a clue as to what burden those laws place on business. They can pass a law to regulate the farmers and they've never farmed."
Rave on, Congress, about health care reform, welfare reform, and crime bills: The groundswell for reform has just begun. In 1992, Colorado passed a law that forces legislators to get voters' approval before hiking taxes or issuing bonds. Montana has a tax rollback vote coming in November. Other states are gearing up drives to limit taxation, not just terms. Campaign finance reform is the subject of initiatives in Montana, Nevada, and Oregon. And next year, Mississippi may get to vote on the ultimate term-limits measure: reducing the size of the legislature.