As Trump Embraces Term Limits, Allies in Congress Pull Away

Congressional Republicans are settling in for what they hope is a long run in the majority, but President-elect Donald J. Trump doesn’t want them to get too comfortable.

“We’re going to put on term limits, which a lot of people aren’t happy about, but we’re putting on term limits,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Sunday. “We’re doing a lot of things to clean up the system.”

If one thing could put Mr. Trump on a collision course with his new allies on Capitol Hill, it is his embrace of proposals such as term limits and tougher restrictions on allowing lawmakers and top aides to become lobbyists in the lucrative world of Washington influence peddling.

Members of Congress like to talk about returning power to the people, but many would prefer not to vote to limit their own tenure or future employment opportunities. Bringing up term limits is seen by some as raining on their postelection parade.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, made that quite clear last week when he said the Senate outlook for term limits was severely limited.

“I would say we have term limits now,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. “They’re called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate.”

Still, Mr. Trump’s highlighting of his call for term limits — it is No. 1 on his list of priorities to “clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.” — revives an initiative that has been dormant in Washington for years after Republicans rode it to the House takeover in 1994 but then failed to make it happen.

Mr. Trump found a surprising kindred spirit on term limits on Monday when President Obama seemed to endorse the concept.

“I think we want to see new voices and new ideas emerge,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference. “That’s part of the reason why I think term limits are a really useful thing.”

Aides said later that Mr. Obama might have been referring more to the limit on presidential tenure, and his view that George Washington set the right precedent by leaving after two terms. But his words could certainly be extended to Congress.

Proponents of term limits say Mr. Trump’s position has put new energy behind the campaign to adopt a constitutional amendment restricting House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms.

“The other part of the pressure is going to come from the public,” said Nick Tomboulides, the executive director of the group U.S. Term Limits. “When they know term limits is an issue on the table, they will make it very difficult for Congress to ignore. I think Congress is going to be forced to vote on it.”

Term limits have always been popular with voters and got a surge of momentum in the “throw the bums out” political atmosphere of the early 1990s, leading multiple states to adopt them for their legislatures through ballot initiatives and other means.

As part of the “Contract With America” in 1994, Republicans led by Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia promised the “Citizen Legislature Act” and a “first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.” The mantra helped them topple Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington, a staunch opponent of term limits, via a challenger, George Nethercutt, who promised to serve just six years (though he later violated that pledge).

That term limits vote did come in March 1995 and won a majority but fell more than 60 votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to advance a constitutional amendment. Forty Republicans, many of them committee and subcommittee chairmen, joined Democratic opponents in defeating the proposal. The amendment again fell short a year later.

Opponents argued then, and argue now, that arbitrary term limits would rob Congress of the institutional knowledge and expertise needed to conduct business and that voters had regular opportunities to end the service of their lawmakers. They don’t talk about how gerrymandering and the advantages of incumbency make it hard to defeat sitting lawmakers.

Whether the proposal can go anywhere this year will depend on how serious Mr. Trump and his advisers are about pushing it against the wishes of congressional leaders, or whether it was just part of his message to stir up frustrated voters. At this point, it is impossible to say, but it was a primary element of his call to “drain the swamp” that appeared to resonate with the public.

And term limits are just one issue. Conservatives also are raising the alarm about a move by House Republicans to restore congressional earmarks — special home-state spending — as long as they are directed to a government agency rather than a private interest, a source of corruption in the past.

Some lawmakers have argued that restoring the ability of individual lawmakers to earmark money would make it easier to pass spending bills, but critics are moving quickly to quash any effort to bring them back.

With the earmark proposal on the verge of being adopted by Republicans on Wednesday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan called off the vote, fearing it would send a bad signal so soon after the election. He promised a review of the idea and a vote early next year.

Like other self-professed outsiders before him, Mr. Trump will discover that draining the swamp is much easier said than done.

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(Source:nytimes.com)
Photo:Al Drago/The New York Times

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