A merciless television ad began airing in Spokane two weeks ago. It features clips of Richard Nixon swearing, "I am not a crook," George Bush promising, "Read my lips—no new taxes," and Bill Clinton wagging his finger, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The ad then asks : "Will George Nethercutt be next?"
The issue at hand is Congressman Nethercutt's public waffling on his pledge to serve only six years as Washington's 5th District representative. But with his election more than a year off, why is he already drawing such vicious fire from the national term-limits movement? The answer can be found inside the movement itself.
Nethercutt is a mild-mannered and fairly conventional conservative Republican. In the past week he's been hammered from all sides----by former supporters, liberal Democrats, and editorialists of many political persuasions. The buzz, and the vicious TV spot, have been produced by US Term Limits, which, along with other term-limits advocates across the country, promises to spend $20 million nationwide over the next two years to ensure that members of Congress who pledged to voluntarily limit their tenure in Washington keep their word. The ad reminds viewers that last year Nethercutt told The Spokesman Review: "I meant it when I said it. . . . [S]ix years is enough."
Nethercutt first won his seat in 1994 by upsetting veteran Democrat and then Speaker of the House Tom Foley. It was the first time since the Civil War that a sitting Speaker lost a re-election bid. Nethercutt won narrowly, with less than 51 percent of the vote. "It's laughable to think he wouldn't have won without the term-limits issue," says Paul Jacob, executive director of US Term Limits. According to Jacob, term-limits groups spent more than $325,000 on a six-week media blast in support of Nethercutt's 1994 campaign against Foley.
The former Speaker became a target for US Term Limits by using his clout in both Washingtons to actively oppose the movement. In 1991, Foley sued to keep a term-limits initiative off the ballot. When the initiative finally passed (on its second try) the following year, with 52 percent of the statewide vote, Foley joined a new lawsuit to overturn the election. That case was eventually incorporated into another term-limits suit from Arkansas that ended up in the Supreme Court. In 1995, the high court ruled in Foley's favor declaring that state initiatives could not limit service of federal officeholders.
But the damage had already been done. Nethercutt unseated Foley in 1994 and joined a tide of freshman Republicans behind Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America. "I think the defeat of Tom Foley was very symbolic," says Jacob. "It made [Nethercutt] the hero of the term-limits movement."
Currently, 59 members of Congress serve under self-imposed term-limit pledges. "I commit to being a citizen legislator," reads the US Term Limits pledge, "not a career politician." The first group of 10, including Nethercutt, promised to step down in 2000. Six of the 10, including Washington's 2nd District Republican Jack Metcalf, have already reaffirmed their pledge not to seek a fourth term. Of the four who are expected to break their pledge, Nethercutt is in the most vulnerable position. Not only is he considered a traitor by term limits' supporters, but the 5th District could easily swing Democrat (especially behind a strong Gore for President campaign), and US Term Limits expects Nethercutt could face a tight race in the largely independent district regardless of the pledge-breaking issue.
Nethercutt did not return calls from Seattle Weekly, but told The Wall Street Journal last week that retiring would put Washington state and the entire Pacific Northwest "at a disadvantage," because he would lose his place in line for a committee chairmanship, which is determined by seniority. But this argument is particularly disingenuous, considering that it's the same line Foley used in '94. Back then, Nethercutt campaigned against the seniority argument, saying, "The state is bigger than one man."
Nethercutt's hypocrisy is too much for even some of term limits' staunchest opponents. "It's the final nail in the coffin of their pretense to be better," liberal Democrat Barney Frank told the Journal. "This is the worst kind of lie . . . you have traded your pledge for their vote."
The bullying tactics are also a sign of desperation from the term-limits movement. US Term Limits has been running out of options ever since the Supreme Court reversed its organized initiative campaign to limit the terms of congressional delegations state by state. So US Term Limits switched tacks and decided to put its resources behind voluntary pledges. "It's the only way to go," says Jacob. The group promises to promote any candidate who pledges to not seek re-election after three terms. "I think that they know that we don't play a lot of games, we're not just going to wink at them about this," says Jacob, who understands that if Nethercutt can break his pledge without repercussion, other pledge-takers may follow suit and effectively unravel the term-limits movement altogether. "We're serious about keeping them to their word," he promises.