THE IMMENSELY POPULAR "Lord of the Rings" movies follow Frodo Baggins on a journey to rid Middle-earth of a ring that is compelling, powerful, and evil. The ring has destroyed countless lives, but each person who possesses it in turn believes himself immune to its malevolent force and is irresistibly tempted to use it for his own ends.
The congressmen who took term-limit pledges must feel some sympathy for Frodo's plight. About a dozen Republican members of the class of '94 pledged to leave Congress after six to ten years because they believe in reducing the size and scope of government and increasing turnover in Washington. Ask those former congressmen today if they're glad they timed themselves out and they'll say all the right things--but they're oddly wistful when they say them.
Washington, they say, is a "fever swamp" one should be "immunized against." It is "corrupting," "debasing," it "causes amnesia about the really important things." Without exception, those who left say they have "no regrets." But once you have been there, a few admit, "there will always be this pull to go back."
Of the 73 freshmen who came in with the Gingrich revolution, half had never previously served in public office. They were a quirky bunch. Mark Sanford refused to take PAC money and slept on a futon in his office. Helen Chenoweth-Hage raised money for her campaign with an endangered-salmon bake. Those who took a term-limit pledge ran as outsiders--some went to such lengths to develop immunity to "Potomac fever" that they became a thorn in the side of Republican leadership.
A few seem to have come out largely unscathed. "Being a member of Congress is a wonderful opportunity. Giving up a job like that, you give up a lot. But now, I get to see my children just about every day" and "lead a quiet and scholarly life," says former congressman Charles Canady. After a stint as general counsel to Governor Jeb Bush, Canady was rewarded with a seat on a state appeals court in Florida. Calling himself "politically neutered," he won't say much about what is happening in the capital these days. Safe in the judiciary, he has "escaped politics," he says, but he "can't escape public life."
For others, however, the lure of Washington proved too strong. Matt Salmon of Arizona says he is "95 percent" sure that he will run when his replacement Jeff Flake's term expires. Salmon says he won't term-limit himself this time around. The rationale behind term limits is flawed, he says, unless they are imposed across the board. He cites the problem of unilateral disarmament: "Guys like me consistently vote to cut spending, and then Ted Kennedy and Senator Byrd stay on and on." Asked about regrets, Salmon is quick to say that "when it came to getting committee assignments it harmed me. When I say harmed me, I mean it harmed my district."
Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho doesn't identify quite so closely with her district. In fact, she doesn't live there anymore. She's busy, "cooking for ranch hands and working with cattle" on the Nevada ranch owned by Wayne Hage, whom she married during her last year in Congress. "Real life," she calls it. But in the midst of an impassioned monologue about the importance of citizen legislators and how glad she is that she term-limited herself, she breaks off to warmly recall the "friendships you form--almost like you were in a battle." She "certainly wouldn't go back" to Washington, though.
Chenoweth-Hage wasn't always chipper about having to pack her bags and go home. In 2000, she said: "I don't regret taking the term-limit pledge, I regret that I signed on for only six years. I think that it takes a while to figure out your new job, and this is a very complicated job. I think that ten to twelve years would probably be a better time."
Paul Jacob, senior fellow at U.S. Term Limits, says Chenoweth-Hage's experience is far from rare. "Most people keep their pledge but wish they hadn't made it--they come to Washington and they drink the water."
No one has put more thought into the dangers of drinking the water than Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. He continued to practice medicine during his time in Congress--despite being warned off it by the House Ethics Committee--and enjoyed the good publicity that being a doctor and a politician can bring. He often brags that he delivered over 400 babies during his three terms. Medicine, he says, insulated him from the temptation to stay in Washington, where it's "much too easy to lose touch."
After Coburn left Congress, he went back to doctoring. He delivered 216 babies last year. But he also wrote "Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders" and founded Americans for Limited Government. A fascination with what goes on inside the Beltway is not yet quite out of his system, apparently.
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.