The fly-over states’ stinger

An overlooked factor in the next election.

In election result after election result, poll after poll — whether Republican, Democrat or independent; male or female; black, white, yellow, red or green — Americans by large margins want term limits for their representatives, a short leash on their servants holding an office of public trust.

But for Congress, that most unpopular institution of popular government, there are no such term limits. The people’s humble servants have told them to go fly a kite. In no uncertain terms.

Again, just this past week, three-fourths of the U.S. Senate said, “Hell no, we won’t go.” By a whopping 75 to 24 vote, Senators defeated an amendment introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) that would have expressed a “sense of the Senate” for a constitutional amendment imposing a limit on congressional tenure.

Didn’t hear anything about this vote? Much of the news media ignored it, just as they eschew the issue, figuring that the officials of official Washington have consistently and unequivocally declined to return to the mass of folks about whom they care so selflessly. What are you going do about it? Case closed.

Still, for a repeatedly deceased issue, term limitation keeps popping up at the worst times for career politicians. Former House Speaker Tom Foley’s famous prediction that über-interested career politicians would successfully dodge term limits has thus far held up, but the issue did cost Foley his own seat in 1994 — making him the only Speaker defeated for re-election since before the Civil War.

(Former Speaker Newt Gingrich was nearly defeated for his House seat in 1990, winning by a mere 974 votes out of more than 150,000 cast. Oddly, Mr. Gingrich was saved by the open protection of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But that was four years prior to the 1994 Republican Revolution that made him Speaker.)

Certainly politicians have been able to “beat the issue” — most notably when George Nethercutt, having defeated Foley on a pledge to abide by the term limits initiative passed by Washington State voters, ran for a third re-election in 2000 . . . and won. Still, today Nethercutt is gone from Congress, having run for the Senate four years later in a campaign that “never gained much traction.”

Voters don’t like liars. And they do like term limits. All the more, because the issue cuts across political lines. It’s about whether a person seeking power understands that an office is a public trust and not a grant of power, and whether he or she appreciates the need for a limit to power.

That’s why, given a choice, voters favor a candidate who favors term limits.

A quick examination of the roll call vote on Mr. DeMint’s amendment shows several senators whose vote against congressional term limits could perhaps lead to term limits for them personally this election. Sadly, most incumbents have enough advantages to break their word on term limits, or for that matter a cornucopia of other issues, and still gain re-election.

Yet, in a competitive contest, the issue of term limits could make the difference. It’s straight-forward, voters are solidly on-board and well convinced of the reasons, which daily pour forth from Washington were reinforcement ever needed.

Back at a town hall meeting in 2010, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) didn’t like the answer to her question: “You don’t you trust me?” She may not like the answer to: “Can I have your vote?”

The first-term Democratic senator is locked in a tie with all of her GOP opponents, prompting Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling to declare her “definitely one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.”

McCaskill is reeling from the revealing scandal of her Senate office billing taxpayers $76,000 for 89 flights on a chartered plane. Expensive jet-setting at taxpayer expense. And there’s the fact that the charter company making the money is co-owned by — did you guess? — Claire McCaskill!

Oh, and for the record, she owes $287,000 in back property taxes on that charter plane.

Last week, Claire McCaskill voted against term limits for Congress.

This November, as Missourians are considering whether to re-elect McCaskill, they may also be voting on a legislatively referred ballot measure to term-limit statewide officials. Missourians passed both state legislative and congressional term limits back in 1992 by a 75 percent yes vote. A poll last year, nearly twenty years later, showed 77 percent of Missourians opposed to weakening those limits.

What might happen if one of those super PACs reminded folks who probably don’t know, that the same term limits they voted for were voted down by Claire McCaskill?

Another close Senate race will be in Montana, where Democrat Jon Tester is often billed as a populist, not a liberal. But last week Tester voted against the same term limits passed by his state’s voters back in 1992 and reaffirmed by an even bigger margin in 2004.

How will he explain that vote? Will he have to explain it?

A recent poll showed Sen. Tester trailing his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, by two percentage points, 47-45.

Richard Lugar is the third most senior member of the Senate, having held his perch for the last 34 years. Last week, Lugar voted against term limits.

In May, Indiana Republicans will hold a primary to choose their nominee for U.S. Senate. One would guess that long-term incumbent Sen. Lugar would be a shoo-in. Not so. A recent poll commissioned by the Club for Growth put State Treasurer Richard Mourdock up two points on Lugar.

Conservatives like Steve Forbes and groups like the Club for Growth are backing Mourdock. They’re reminding fellow conservatives that MSNBC called Lugar, “Obama’s favorite Republican.”

They might decide to remind voters about Lugar’s vote against term limits. They might posit that the nation can survive just fine without Mr. Lugar having 40 years in power.

And voters do like term limits.

February 5, 2012

This column originally appeared on Townhall.com.