Cover Story

Breaking the term limit

Congressional Republicans benefited greatly from the "throw-out-the-bums" wave that gave the GOP control of Congress in 1994" for the first time in more than four decades. And, in part, they had the term-limits movement to thank. Three terms later, it's payback time, and while several Republicans are honoring their pledge to serve only six years in Washington, the GOP has quietly lobbied members to go back on their word. Why? Republicans are desperate to hold on to their slim majority, and they need to keep their term-limited members. WORLD looks at the foundering term-limits movement" and the question of pledge-keeping" through the lens of a single race in Washington state. But it's not any ordinary race; it involves the man who in 1994 knocked off the entrenched then-House Speaker Thomas Foley with a promise to retire after three terms. This fall, George Nethercutt is looking for a fourth"and term-limiters are anxious to show their movement isn't dead.

Issue: "Breaking the term limit," Sept. 16, 2000

in Pullman, Wash.-If Norman Rockwell were still around, he might suspect that life in Pullman was imitating his art. With the sun beating down on the rolling hills of southwestern Washington, the residents of this university town gathered in Sunnyside Park for a town picnic. Families spread blankets in front of a temporary stage where a band was warming up with "Under the Boardwalk." Teenage boys rolled up their sleeves and hurled baseballs as hard as they could, while their girlfriends acted duly impressed as they read the speed off a radar display. Over at the food tent, the Chamber of Commerce sold barbecue and potato chips. It was practically a tribute to Americana: Mom. Apple pie. Baseball. Hot dogs. And, of course, the Weasel King. OK, most people wouldn't include a six-foot-tall rodent in their mental mosaic of all things American, but in Washington's fifth congressional district, he's become such a fixture at barbecues and parades that it's hard to imagine life without him. Children throw their arms around his furry legs or line up to have their pictures taken with him. Grown-ups boogie with him. He's almost as beloved as Mickey Mouse. Unless you happen to be George Nethercutt. The three-term GOP congressman dreads seeing the Weasel King. Every time Mr. Nethercutt turns around, there's the guy in the shaggy brown outfit with the gold crown, red sash, and green-and-black necktie. It almost seems like Mr. Nethercutt is being followed&n#151;which, of course, he is. The Weasel King is a hairy, highly visible reminder that Mr. Nethercutt was supposed to be resigning his congressional seat this year. He earned it in 1994 by booting out Thomas Foley, who was then Speaker of the House. It was the first time a sitting House Speaker had been defeated in more than a century, and it happened largely on the strength of one issue: term limits. Mr. Nethercutt charged again and again that after 15 terms, Speaker Foley had lost touch with the district and was practically a full-time resident of the "other" Washington. That would never happen to him, Mr. Nethercutt vowed. If the voters elected him, he'd serve three terms in Congress and then come home. Three terms later, Mr. Nethercutt is having second thoughts. Sitting in the nearly empty Basilio's Caf?n Main Street in Pullman, he repeatedly emphasized how much he loves this part of the country. "I'm anxious to get home," he told WORLD. "I had a good life here. I was happy. I had a good law practice. I was raising kids and enjoying my family. I don't want [a seat in Congress] to be my last job, I really don't." But ... With the rhetorical dam finally broken, the buts spill out in a torrent: But there's work to be done on the farm bill and electricity deregulation. But the GOP can't afford any additional open seats. But he's the only voice from the Pacific Northwest on the powerful appropriations committee. But he didn't realize back in 1994 how complicated Washington really was. But the people of his district told him to finish the job. And then there's his trump card: "I've prayed long and hard about this decision, believe me. It's one of the harder decisions I've had to make in my adult life," he says earnestly. "Frankly, I feel the good Lord commissioned me to take on this challenge back in '94, and I haven't heard any other message that I should go do something else yet." Mr. Nethercutt may be waiting for the handwriting on the wall, but angry term-limits advocates are putting their handwriting somewhere else: at the bottom of their checks. Mr. Nethercutt says national term-limits organizations have poured at least $600,000 into his race, and he's sure there will be more. (National term-limits organizations won't confirm those figures, but a spokeswoman for U.S. Term Limits acknowledges, "We're going to spend whatever it takes to get the job done.") The reason is simple: Six years ago, the term-limits movement looked poised to sweep the nation as disgruntled voters looked for a way to shake up the political status quo. Term limits were supposed to create a class of legislative bomb-throwers who would work for the people back home rather than the special interests in Washington. Indeed, there are some signs that has happened. A recent study by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation found that self-limiters from the Class of 1994 introduced spending bills in the last Congress that would, if passed, have saved taxpayers $27.2 billion. By contrast, freshmen elected since 1994 without a term-limits promise sponsored legislation that would have resulted in a net increase in federal spending. Despite such statistics, economic good times have muted voters' anger, and the term-limits issue is now in danger of being forgotten. That won't happen without a fight by organizations like U.S. Term Limits and Americans for Limited Terms, which practically chose Mr. Nethercutt as its poster child in 1994 and pumped more than $300,000 into his long-shot race against Mr. Foley. Now that the poster child has grown up and left the fold, USTL is determined to make an example of him-and breathe new life into a struggling movement at the same time. Enter the weasel. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau first bestowed the "Weasel King" moniker on Mr. Nethercutt in his Doonesbury comic strip. USTL picked up the idea and brought it to furry life. Now the giant rodent appears at every campaign event it can get its paws on. (That's not as easy as it used to be. After being repeatedly embarrassed by the weasel, the Nethercutt campaign began guarding its schedule like a state secret. That helped cut down on the weasel infestation, but it also made it much harder for local media to give free coverage to the candidate.) Thanks to the term-limits flap, Mr. Nethercutt's safe seat now looks to be very much in play. In spring polls, the incumbent claimed just 40 percent support against unknown challengers. Richard Clear, a conservative radio talk-show host, is contesting the GOP nomination, with primary voting to occur next Tuesday, Sept. 19-just six weeks before the general election. On the Democratic side, Tom Keefe, a former aide to Sens. Warren Magnuson and Brock Adams, is expected to capture the nomination easily. Thanks to his D.C. connections, analysts believe he'll be a formidable fundraiser with plenty of high-profile Democrats lining up to endorse him. With only six seats keeping them in the majority, House Republicans are eyeing the Nethercutt race nervously. For the GOP, the term-limits issue has amounted to unilateral disarmament. Back in 1992 and 1994, at the height of the movement's popularity, Republicans scrambled onto the bandwagon and racked up significant gains. Indeed, term limits was one of the issues that helped Republicans take back the House for the first time in a generation. Once in power, however, a divided Republican Party missed its chance to write term limits into law-a failure that has come back to haunt them. Only two Democrats took the term-limits pledge: Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.) kept her word and retired two years ago. This year, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) reneged on his promise and is currently running for a fifth term. Thus, in a crucial election year, Democrats have no open seats to defend because of self-limiting members, while Republicans have at least seven members who are stepping down, in keeping with their term-limits pledge: Matt Salmon, Ariz.; Tillie Fowler, Fla.; Charles Canady, Fla.; Helen Chenoweth-Hage, Idaho; Tom Coburn, Okla.; Mark Sanford, S.C.; Jack Metcalf, Wash. Two other self-limiters, David McIntosh of Indiana and Jim Talent of Missouri, are giving up their seats earlier than promised in order to run for higher office. All those open seats represent a big disadvantage for Republicans: Incumbents are reelected better than 90 percent of the time, but open seats are automatically considered vulnerable to a takeover. Not surprisingly, GOP leaders in the House actively lobbied self-limiting members to break their promise to the voters in order to help protect the Republican majority. Across the state, in Washington's second congressional district, Jack Metcalf resisted the pressure. He'd promised to serve only three terms, and he was determined to make good on that promise. The departure of the avuncular congressman drew praise from U.S. Term Limits-but created a vacuum that Democrats are racing to fill. Political analysts say Mr. Metcalf failed to groom a successor to his seat, even as the clock was ticking down on his announced retirement. That left political hopefuls jockeying for position rather than uniting behind a single standard-bearer. Conservatives in the left-leaning district, which spreads from the Canadian border to the suburbs of Seattle, liked state Rep. John Koster, an outspoken pro-lifer. But moderates favored former state Rep. Barry Sehlin. Both men announced their candidacies and began raising money, setting up a hotly contested electoral showdown. Democrats, meanwhile, crowned Snohomish County Councilman Rick Larsen without a fight. With two Republicans battling for scarce campaign contributions, GOP fundraising took a hit. Through the first half of the year, Mr. Larsen, the Democrat, raised nearly $800,000, compared to just $335,000 for Mr. Koster. That led Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, to call Washington's second district "probably our most vulnerable seat" anywhere in the country. "So far in this race, nothing's gone right for us," he admitted. "We need to get our act together." The Koster campaign has recovered, but Republican strategists worry that the primary has already taken its toll, leaving Mr. Koster with a deflated bank account and an extreme right-wing image. The latest poll shows Mr. Koster and Mr. Larsen in a dead heat. Mr. Koster himself recognizes the bruises he suffered in the primary fight-and he knows it didn't have to be that way. Despite the fact that Mr. Koster told his "old friend" Jack Metcalf nearly a year and a half ago that he intended to run for his open seat, "There was no sense of grooming a successor," he says. "Democrats do a better job of that than we do. They went out early to choose a single candidate.... [House Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt was making calls in favor of Rick Larsen as much as 18 months ago." Not surprisingly, after the electoral carnage he's seen in his own district, Mr. Koster isn't about to sign a term-limits pledge. "It's not that I don't support them," he tries to emphasize. "I'm saying, 'Look, I'm not going to be the only one to commit to three terms.' If everybody wants to live with three terms, then I'm there. But I'm certainly not going to do it when no one else is doing it. "Look at the good people we're losing in the House this term: Helen Chenoweth, Matt Salmon, Mark Sanford-good, conservative people who I wish were staying around to fight. I'm just uncertain that three terms is long enough. I served three terms in the state house, and I'm not convinced that it's long enough to establish yourself and get a whole lot done." From the northwest and southeast corners of the state, the arguments against term limits are coming through loud and clearâ€"and in stereo. Both Mr. Koster and Mr. Nethercutt say they support term limits in theory. But in practice, both men offer perfectly plausible reasons why they ought to stay in Congress for a long time. If voters in Washington state buy those reasons, voluntary term limitation could well be pronounced dead-at least on the national level. Whether Mr. Nethercutt overcomes his broken promise and wins a fourth term, other Republicans, like Mr. Koster, have learned from his example. Even the National Republican Congressional Committee is urging its candidates to avoid the issue altogether. That would mean the days of the Weasel King-the character, not the congressman-are numbered. After an hour or so at the Pullman picnic, the children tired of hugging him, and the shaggy suit got unbearably hot. "Well, I'm outta here," he shouted through his snout. He cut an odd figure as he shuffled away in his giant padded feet with his thick, upturned tail wagging back and forth behind him. Slowly he made his way along a bike path, past a pond, toward a distant parking lot. At last he disappeared over the top of a hill-but he might as well have disappeared into the sunset

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