April 27, 2013
The Arizona Republic
Rebekah L. Sanders

If an Arizona congressman gets his way, he’ll be out of a job. And so will two-thirds of today’s U.S. House of Representatives, as well as half the Senate.

Rep. Matt Salmon, a Mesa Republican, recently introduced legislation to impose strict term limits on Congress, a proposal that in years past has been wildly popular with the public and dead on arrival in Washington.

“If we had a national term-limit policy, it would be a better place back here,” Salmon, who has been in state and federal politics for much of his working life, told The Arizona Republic from his office on Capitol Hill. “I think a lot of people start out full of idealism and fresh ideas. And then a lot of times being re-elected becomes more important than staying true to your principles.”

Salmon’s bill, which was introduced Tuesday, would restrict representatives to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. The bill also would prohibit the route Salmon took in his political career. No one could return to Washington after meeting the limit of terms, even if they sat out for a few years.

Salmon, 55, was part of the 1994 wave of Republican freshmen who took control of the House for the first time since the 1950s. They championed term limits and other priorities laid out in their party’s Contract with America.

“Eternal life should be sought elsewhere, perhaps in the religious community, not politics,” Salmon said back then of long-serving lawmakers.

But the House failed to pass a term-limits bill. And out of more than 70 members who said they would impose term limits on themselves after six years in office if a bill failed, Salmon and about a half dozen other members of the class honored their pledge and stepped down.

Salmon regrets leaving to this day.

“I would not have left my last term had I not given that pledge,” he said. “I realized doing it just on yourself doesn’t make a lot of sense. Here, I’m walking out the door and (House Democratic leader) Nancy Pelosi stayed. It’s not smart to take yourself out of the game if nobody else is.”

Salmon said this time around will be different.

“I’m not term-limiting myself again,” he said. “Not until everybody else does.”

Salmon’s bill faces steep challenges. It would amend the Constitution, which requires support of two-thirds of both the House and Senate and three-fourths of the states. Similar proposals have failed going back decades.

Philip Blumel, president of the advocacy organization U.S. Term Limits, sees factors in its favor.

Salmon’s bill was introduced at the same time as identical legislation in the Senate. Both have multiple co-sponsors. Salmon’s fellow Arizona Republican, Rep. David Schweikert, is one of them. Proposals in the recent past have not had such coordinated support, said Blumel.

A widening list of states, plus county and local governments, already have passed term limits. Congress is the last frontier, he said.

“Where we ran into trouble was the U.S. Congress,” Blumel said. “That’s why this bill from Matt Salmon and its companion in the Senate introduced by Senators David Vitter and Rand Paul is so encouraging.”

He said that term limits foster more competition in elections, limit the influence of special-interest lobbyists and dislodge entrenched politicians from their seats. Nearly 300 current U.S. senators and representatives have served for longer than Salmon’s legislation would allow. Term limits would “shake up” Washington, Blumel said.

That’s the idea in theory, argues Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, but in reality term limits have the opposite outcome. The political-science professor at Wayne State University in Detroit has studied the effects of term limits on Michigan’s state legislature.

Sarbaugh-Thompson said, in her review, that term limits have led to inexperienced lawmakers who lack the know-how to provide strong oversight of agencies and can be manipulated more easily by lobbyists. Special-interest money still flows, it just does so after elections, she said. And though a throng of candidates may compete for a seat after it is vacated, in the intervening years, few challenge the incumbents, she said.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., whose tenure began 58 years ago in 1955, is the longest-serving member of Congress in office today.

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