The Magazine

They Took the Pledge

Whatever became of the term-limiters of '94?

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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One of Coburn's closest allies in Congress was Mark Sanford, now firmly ensconced outside the Beltway as the governor of South Carolina. Though united by their disdain for the ceremony and self-importance of Washington legislators, Coburn and Sanford reminisce fondly about their amendment spree on the 1999 agriculture appropriations bill. Coburn devotes a whole chapter in his book to his effort to eliminate pork by using the House equivalent of a filibuster. Sanford, through a slight haze of nostalgia, remembers the 115 amendments Coburn offered as "nearly 200." But this is perhaps forgivable. Both men were in their last term. They were more or less indifferent to what the leadership thought of them. They were simply, says Sanford, trying to "keep the R in Republican." Or as Coburn prefers to put it, "to keep our commitment to the American people." They say they "felt free" for those two years.

One of the hobbyhorses of the term-limiters is the sticking power of incumbents. Jacob laments that "you can break a pledge, set buildings on fire, do all kinds of terrible things, and still keep your seat." George Radanovich of California recently announced that he would run again, despite a 10-year pledge. And George Nethercutt of Washington--who has long since missed the deadline he set for himself--is living proof that it takes more than a broken term-limit pledge to get booted from a safe seat.

Sanford, warming to the subject, says, "Someone told me the other day that the turnover rate in Congress is less than in the Soviet Duma!" Then he catches himself and sighs, "I don't know if that's true, but I certainly could believe it."

When asked about what might have been, the former congressmen repeat that they have no regrets. They say that the Republican revolution might not have happened if they hadn't won the races where term limits were a divisive issue.

But perhaps more tellingly, they also doubt whether the class of '94 could have carried on being revolutionaries. Human nature being what it is, they say, the old axiom about power corrupting holds true. And while human nature never changes, people do. "If the class of '94 were still in Congress," asks Sanford, "would it still be the class of '94?"

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.