Term-limit proponents aren’t making headway

Chris Vetter

Twenty-two-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn has become very comfortable in her state Legislature seat; the Minneapolis Democrat did not run ads and didn’t print new literature for this year’s campaign.
Nonetheless, Kahn, who represents the University’s Minneapolis campus, received 64 percent of the popular vote and will return to office next session. Kahn said she was never worried about winning.
“I usually win by more,” Kahn said. “But with two opponents, my margin of victory was higher.”
Kahn and nearly all other Minnesota and federal incumbents were re-elected this year. Among state incumbents, only one state senator and a handful of state representatives lost their bid to return to office, and the turnover in Washington was comparably low.
The overwhelming victory for incumbents in 1996 raises the question of whether it is time to pass state and national term limits. Incumbents were nearly invincible this election. They have more money and name recognition than challengers, and a history of public service to point to in their campaigns.
Term-limit supporters argue that legislators who stay in office for long periods of time will become too entrenched and concerned with special interests, and will not obey the will of their constituents.
The proponents of term limits want an amendment to the state constitution. Because Minnesota does not have an initiative process that allows citizens to create amendments, the state Legislature must vote to create an amendment for term limits to appear on a future ballot. Patti Awada, the executive director of Minnesotans for Term Limits, said this process will not work.
“Asking legislators to send an amendment to the people is like asking chickens to vote for Colonel Sanders,” Awada said.
Term-limit opponents argue that limits are not needed because incumbents can be defeated at the polls, and legislators who are doing a good job deserve to stay in office.
Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who also represents the University’s district, said term limits are not needed because incumbents can still be defeated without them.
“I think every election you have is a limiting election,” Pogemiller said. “The old-fashioned way is to beat an incumbent.”
Sen. Carol Flynn, DFL-Minneapolis, said senior members are needed in the Legislature to help guide the junior members.
“You need that history (in the Legislature) to understand all the unintended consequences of a bill,” Flynn said. Term limits would favor the executive branch that does not face a senior legislature, she added.
Flynn said most state legislators return to their district every night or at least every weekend, so the fear of legislators losing touch with their constituents is unfounded. She also added that a high turnover in the Legislature because of retirement makes term limits unnecessary.
Thirteen state senators have retired since the 1992 elections.
Political analyst Sarah Janecek said Minnesota will not pass term limits in the upcoming session because the Democrats hold control of both state houses.
“I don’t expect (term limits) to go very far,” Janecek said. “This has always been a Republican issue.”
Political analyst D.J. Leary agreed and said termlimits will not pass because debate on the issue is sparked only by an unhappy public.
“All of the anger we saw in the electorate that was present in 1992, and more so in 1994, has disappeared in 1996,” Leary said. “The idea of term limits is codependent with the idea of throwing the bums out.”
But Awada said term limits are still very popular with the public. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 80 percent of Americans favor term limits for national legislators.
Incumbents in the U.S. Congress also had a good year in the 1996 elections. Out of 20 Senate seats and 390 House seats held by incumbents up for re-election, only one senator and about 20 representatives were defeated. Approximately 91 percent of national incumbents returned to office. In Minnesota, all nine congressmen were re-elected.
Because the GOP retained control of Congress this year, the likelihood of limits receiving enough support on the national level is minimal. The House in 1995 was 61 votes short of a term-limit amendment, and the Senate could not muster a majority favoring term limits either.
Republicans, who in the past have largely favored term limits, are enjoying their power, said University political science professor Steve Smith. “Much of the steam of the movement is over,” Smith said.
But Jonathan Ferry, the communications director of the Washington-based U.S. Term Limits, said Americans still want limits on their federal legislators as well.
“Politicians have ignored this for years,” Ferry said. “But grass-roots citizens want this, and it won’t go away.”