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The November elections are quickly approaching, and challengers are gearing up for the formidable task of unseating incumbents. Of the 30 House seats that are open, six are being relinquished voluntarily by members who have term-limited themselves. In these times of plenty, it is good to know we have selfless heroes committed to the ideal of citizen legislators.
Republican Reps. Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Mark Salmon of Arizona, and Jack Metcalf of Washington of the class of 1994, along with Charles Canady of Florida, elected in 1992, came to Washington to make a difference. Unlike many of their colleagues who chose to make Washington a political career, these public servants are keeping their word to be citizen-legislators and are returning to private life. But as they leave Washington, we are forced to ask: Do term limits matter? Do term-limited members vote differently than those who stand for re-election time after time?
Many of the pundits are hostile to term limits, and others have delighted in calling the notion a passing fad. Recent op-eds have referred to the term-limit movement as a "lost cause" that is "losing its sizzle." Nevertheless, term-limiting is a measure of prudence and discretion as old as our nation. Despite recurring calls to serve as president for life, George Washington stepped down to establish what he called "the most important of precedents." His was a precedent that lasted until 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to run for a third term. The two-term limit for presidents was reinstated in 1951 with ratification of the 22nd Amendment.
Some who promised to limit their terms have not done so. Rep. George Nethercutt, Washington Republican, who in 1994 beat House Speaker Thomas Foley, Washington Democrat, largely on a promise to limit his term to six years, is an example. "To term-limit yourself really reduces your effectiveness," he said in a recent interview. Others, such as Reps. Martin Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, and Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, also have backed away from their promises to limit their terms, citing effectiveness concerns. On the other hand, some say term-limited members are likely to be more effective than career politicians, since they "have a job to do, they do it, and they get on with their lives."
We tested the proposition that term-limited members are, on the whole, more fiscally prudent, using the National Taxpayers Union's ratings of all members of Congress for the 1998 session.
Using simple regression analysis, we "explained" the scores of the members of the House of Representatives (no members of the Senate are self-term-limited) - zero being the most wasteful and 100 being the most frugal - using three
* First, their ideology, measured by whether they are Republicans or Democrats.
* Second, the length of time they had been in office - thus testing political scientist James Payne's theory that the longer members are in office the more spendthrift they become.
* And third, whether they had promised to limit their term in office and had not renounced their pledge.
The results show quite conclusively that ideology/party matters. Everything else equal, being a Republican added 35 points to the unadjusted spending score of 21.
The length of time in office was also significant in explaining spending behavior and had the predicted effect: Generally, the longer the term in office, the lower the spending score, though after 20 years it made little difference (at which point, time in office deducted 2.6 points from the spending score).
The results do indicate a weaker, but still important, correlation between term limits and fiscal discipline, with term limits adding 3.5 points to the spending discipline score.
Here is another way of looking at whether term limits matter. In 1998, the typical representative voted to spend $122 billion on new programs. (The typical Democrat voted for $126 billion, while the typical Republican voted for $119
billion.) The typical term limiter, however, voted for $115 billion - some $7 billion less than the congressional average.
The upshot of the analysis is that term limiters are, indeed, different from the rank and file when it comes to voting on fiscal matters. Term limits may be a passing fad. If so, fiscal conservatives have reason to worry.
Chris Hayter is research assistant and James C. Miller III is counselor for the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation.