Terms Unlimited

1914 Ford Model T touring car, B&W photo
AP
Just 42 and coming off a landslide re-election victory in a conservative Arizona district, Republican Rep. Matt Salmon could be looking at a decades-long congressional career.

Instead, he's looking to go home.

Salmon is keeping a pledge to serve only six years in the House. Six other House members who made term-limits pledges also are stepping down, while three are running for re-election.

"It's important to do it because I said I'd do it," Salmon said. "I think people get really frustrated with politicians who say one thing and then do another. ... It's a no-brainer for me."

Term limits were a hot issue in 1994, when Salmon was elected to the House seat from the Phoenix-area once held by Sen. John McCain. Republicans won control of the House that year and made passing term limits part of the GOP "Contract with America."

But in 1995, the Supreme Court struck down state laws limiting congressional terms and Congress turned back attempts to pass a constitutional amendment on the matter.


The Term-Limits Ten

Ten members of the House of Representatives pledged in 1994 to serve only three, two-year terms. Seven are retiring to keep those pledges. Three are running for re-election.

The seven leaving the House:

  • Charles Canady, R-Fla.
  • Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho.
  • Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
  • Tillie Fowler, R-Fla.
  • Jack Metcalf, R-Wash.
  • Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.
  • Mark Sanford, R-S.C.
  • The three seeking re-election:

  • Scott McInnis, R-Colo.
  • Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
  • George Nethercutt, R-Wash.

  • Term limits have faded since then, said Norm Ornstein, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

    "It's as close to dead as you can get without a certificate," Ornstein said. "We're having good (economic) times, which have tended to bring a less hostile view of politicians, politics and particularly Congress."

    The three House members who decided not to honor their term-limits pledges - Republicans George Nethercutt of Washington and Scott McInnis of Colorado and Democrat Martin Meehan of Massachusetts - say they can help their districts more if they stick around.

    "To me, it makes as much sense as going down to the local hospital and saying, no matter how qualified your heart surgeon is, if he's been here six years, he's out of office automatically," said McInnis, whose district covers most of the western half of Colorado.

    McInnis announced before the 1998 election that he would not retire in 2000. Despite breaking his 1994 pledge to serve no more than six years, he won re-election with 66 percent of the votes. He is a heavy favorite to win again this year.

    Nethercutt, who in 1994 upset then-House Speaker Tom Foley, a 15-term veteran, is expected to have a tougher time.

    The activist group U.S. Term Limits has run ads blasting Nethercutt for his about-face and sent a person dressed in a "Weasel King" costume to shadow Nethercutt at campaign events.

    "It would be easiest to say the heck with it and not run," Nethercutt said. "But I feel an obligation to finish some of the things I've started."

    Salmon and other term-limits supporters say career politicians often become beholden to special interests that donate to their campaigns and congressional leaders who hand out committee assignments.

    "I don't see a nickel's worth of difference, generally speaking, in a member of my party or a member of the other party when it comes to pork-barrel spending after they've been here 15 years," Salmon said. "They just seem to be part of the status quo."

    In Congress, Salmon championed children's issues, and was involved in the successful effort to persuade the Chinese government to release Song Yongyi, a Pennsylvania college librarian imprisoned after returning to his native country to do research. Salmon, who learned Mandarin Chinese for his Mormon missionary work in Taiwan, met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to press for Song's release.

    Although Salmon's leaving Congress, he's not quitting politics, saying he is "strongly considering" running for Arizona governor in 2002.

    To succeed him in the House, Salmon endorsed Jeff Flake, one of five GOP candidates. The conservative Goldwater Institute's former director promised to limit his time in Washington.

    "That was a prerequisite to me," Salmon said. "I want a servant, not a professional, a careerist."