Damming Nethercutt

What does salmon have to do with term limits?

Judging by the editorial pages lately, one of the most important domestic issues facing Congress right now is the fate of Rep. George Nethercutt, the Republican congressman from Spokane. The Seattle Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times all agree: The congressman should go. A barrage of television commercials airing in Spokane for the past month, plus a highway billboard on I-90, have added fuel to the fire, comparing Nethercutt to presidential liars Nixon, George "No New Taxes" Bush, and that finger wagger ("I did not have sexual etc. etc. . . . ") currently in the White House.

The campaign against Nethercutt is being orchestrated by US Term Limits in Washington, DC, which was a big booster of Nethercutt's successful 1994 campaign. Back then, he pledged to self-limit his tenure to three terms, saying: "Six years is enough." Five years later, however, Nethercutt appears to have decided it's not enough, and he is now expected to run for a fourth term in 2000.

Two weeks ago, US Term Limits launched a new TV campaign against the congressman with a spot called "Breach," hoping to turn the screws even tighter. However, the new ad is more likely to backfire. Not only is it precisely the kind of distortive attack ad that government reform groups usually condemn, the spot has only a tenuous connection to the term-limits issue. The unprecedented coalition against Nethercutt is already fracturing. Last week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published the first prominent editorial against the anti-Nethercutt campaign, saying US Term Limits has gone too far. Conservative Sen. Slade Gorton has also asked that the ads be yanked.

The new spot accuses Nethercutt of supporting the Endangered Species Act. The ESA is a regulatory bugbear in Nethercutt's part of the state, where declining salmon runs are leading to calls for the dismantling of several Snake River dams that are critical to Eastern Washington agriculture. Though Nethercutt has promised to protect the dams, the ads take him to task for voting in favor of 12 appropriations bills that fund government agencies responsible for enforcing the ESA. "[Nethercutt] voted to give millions to the bureaucrats . . . who want to breach our dams and devastate our local communities," the ad intones.

"He's playing both sides," protests Jason Miller, a spokesperson for US Term Limits. "Congressman Nethercutt is saying one thing and doing another. It's a trust issue." Even though US Term Limits has no position on the dam issue, Miller claims the subject is relevant because it is another example of Nethercutt breaking his word to voters.

But the votes US Term Limits criticizes were for major legislation to fund the entire Department of the Interior, not just the agencies involved in the dam issue. Given the way bills are packaged in Congress, there are many legitimate and justifiable reasons why Nethercutt may have voted for legislation that might indirectly undermine dam protection. For the moment, Nethercutt is not bothering to defend himself: His office did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

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