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House chief skirting limits law

WASHINGTON -- In the 1936 campaign, after four years of increased federal spending, President Roosevelt was to campaign in Pittsburgh, where in the 1932 campaign he had called for reduced federal spending.

FDR directed his speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, to "see whether you can prepare a draft giving a ... convincing explanation" of his somersault. Rosenman read the 1932 speech and told FDR only one explanation would do: "The only thing you can say about that 1932 speech is to deny categorically that you ever made it."Which brings us to the wee problem one Republican senator and some House members -- all but one of them Republicans -- are experiencing because of a promise each made when first elected. They promised to limit the number of terms they would serve. Now they regret that they cannot just deny having made them.

In 1988 Conrad Burns told Montanans he would seek only two Senate terms. Preparing his 2000 run, he says, "Circumstances have changed, and I have rethought my position." In 1992 Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan said he would seek only four House terms. Today: "I have come to realize over the past seven years that, with the failure of term-limits legislation nationally, to arbitrarily limit my own service puts the people I represent at a disadvantage."

In 1992 Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican, ran for Congress (her slogan: Eight is Enough!) promising to limit herself to four terms. She has filed papers enabling her to seek a fifth term.

Six House members who in 1994 committed to retire in 2000 are, quaintly, keeping their word. However, last week Washington state's George Nethercutt, who in 1994 used his promise to seek only three terms (and who benefited from spending by term-limits supporters) to defeat, narrowly, Speaker Tom Foley, said his promise "was a mistake." He is running.

The term-limits movement tracked the trajectory of politics in the 1990s. The movement burgeoned early in the decade, as abuses of the House bank and other scandals focused dissatisfaction with a House controlled by one party since 1955. By 1995, 22 states had imposed term limits on their congressional delegations, and the Contract With America promised the first congressional vote on a term-limits constitutional amendment.

The amendment won a majority -- 217 votes -- but not nearly the two-thirds required. Eighty-two percent of Democrats voted against limits, 80 percent of Republicans voted for limits -- some of them cheerful in their certainty that limits would not pass.

But in May 1995 the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, against the constitutionality of state term limits on congressional delegations. So an idea favored by more than 70 percent of Americans -- all regions, and virtually every demographic group except the political class -- was stymied. At about that time, the churning of Congress by elections and retirements, and the balm of prosperity, began to calm political anger.

But in 1995 the term-limits idea achieved a signal success when the House Republican Conference modified its seniority policy, imposing six-year limits on committee chairmen. Republicans rightly crowed. This mattered because Congress' institutional sclerosis resulted less from the House rank and file, the average tenure of which was less than 10 years, than from the long-serving chairmen who blocked the upward mobility of fresh talent.

But last week, just as Nethercutt was doing his version of the apostasy minuet, Speaker Dennis Hastert made an "interpretation" or "clarification" (words his spokesman used) that virtually vitiates the limits on chairmen. Hastert, according to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, "quietly informed" the chairmen, in effect, that their seniority is portable: They can swap chairmanships, or remain on the committees they have chaired and keep control of particularly succulent subcommittees.

So, for example, Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, can take a small step down to head the ground transportation subcommittee, which deals with highway, roads and infrastructure spending. And also railroad spending, now that it has been given -- how convenient -- to that subcommittee.

One probable reason for Hastert's "clarification" is to give the most senior members a reason not to retire. So House Republicans, yesterday's "revolutionaries," are today's opponents of the term-limits principle.

One close observer of Congress, who prefers anonymity for this assessment, says that by caving in to the demands of the senior members, "Hastert seems determined to be the weakest speaker in the modern history of the House, which is good for the reputation of Carl Albert." Hastert's "interpretation" completes the process by which, regarding term limits, Republicans have made a sow's ear from a silk purse.

Washington Post Writers Group