National Journal 08-12-2000
SOCIAL STUDIES: Is There An Excuse For George Nethercutt?
by Jonathan Rauch
This November, the most important election in the country will be the one
between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The second most important will be-you
say Hillary vs. Rick for the open New York Senate seat? Good guess, but
no. The race that puts a fundamental principle most clearly at stake is
the contest in Washington's 5th Congressional District, which is
represented by a Republican named George Nethercutt.
In 1994, Nethercutt, then a politically unknown lawyer, challenged Thomas
S. Foley, the Democratic Speaker of the House. Term limits were a key
issue. Washington state had passed a law limiting its House members'
service to six years, and its Senators' to 12. Foley, who believed the
measure was unconstitutional, filed suit against it and won. Foley's
lawsuit against his own state's term limits tarred him back home as the
ultimate Washington insider.
Enter Nethercutt. He decried Foley as "a creature of Washington,
D.C., born and raised in that system." He said the campaign was about
changing the system in Washington. He ran as an advocate of the term
limits that Foley opposed. In November 1994, The New York Times reported
that Nethercutt "played up his inexperience in government, saying he
wanted to return to something closer to the part-time Congress of
To drive the point home, he promised to serve only for six years. Once
elected, he filed a letter with the clerk of the House: "Should I be
elected to serve more than two additional terms in the U.S. House of
Representatives following the 104th Congress, by this letter I hereby
resign and direct you to remove my name permanently from the roll of the
members." For years, his Web site declared: "Term limits was one
of the defining issues of my 1994 campaign."
About a year ago, that statement disappeared from the congressman's site.
In June 1999, Nethercutt announced he would run for a fourth term.
In 1994, Nethercutt was a poster child for term limit activists. When he
broke his promise, a group called U.S. Term Limits went on the warpath.
The group threw back at Nethercutt all sorts of things he had said, such
as this statement aimed at Bill Clinton, from August 1998: "Your word
is your bond, whether it's your public life or your private life. The
honorable thing for him to do is to resign."
Perhaps more consequentially, U.S. Term Limits is also spending heavily
against Nethercutt-an amount in the six figures, although nothing
approaching the $1 million reported in the press, according to Paul Jacob,
the group's national director. Jacob says that Nethercutt is one of three
House members running this year in defiance of their promises to step
down; the other two are Scott McInnis, R-Colo., and Martin T. Meehan,
D-Mass. (Seven other members are keeping their promises to quit.)
That Nethercutt, by breaking his promise, has committed one of the most
brazen political betrayals of our time is too obvious to be interesting.
More interesting is the question: Is there a case for his
Nethercutt himself has offered all sorts of arguments. Some of them are
pathetic, as when he said (to The Washington Post) that he had
"blurted out" his promise in 1994. Others are irrelevant, as
when he told The American Spectator, "I feel I have to finish the
work I started." (He did not promise, in 1994, to stay until he felt
he was finished.) Some are crass, as when he told The NewsHour With Jim
Lehrer that in 1994, "I didn't realize I'd be in the majority. I
didn't realize I'd be on the Appropriations Committee. That means
something for our district-not for me, but for our district." (In
1994, he had said: "I understand the issue of pork, power, and
productivity. But the world didn't fall apart 30 years ago when Walt Horan
got defeated by a 35-year-old lawyer.") Still others are simply
weird. "I'm less enamored with the idea of term limitations, and I'm
the perfect example of why we don't need them," he told The Post. (I
leave it to you to work that one out.)
Two other arguments, however, have real strength. One is that politicians
who make ill-advised promises should be allowed to change their minds. The
other is that if he quit, he would put at risk not only term limits but
all other conservative causes, because the Republicans need every seat to
maintain control of the House.
"I have changed my mind," Nethercutt said in a statement when he
announced his decision last year. "I made a mistake when I chose to
set a limit on my service." Politicians, he said, ought to admit and
correct their mistakes. He told The Spectator: "Judge me on my
record, my accomplishments, my honesty in admitting I made a mistake. I'm
Fair enough. If Nethercutt had campaigned on a promise never to accept a
seat on the Appropriations Committee and then later had realized what an
idiotic promise this was, surely he should be allowed to change his mind,
explain himself to the voters, and take his chances with them. That does
not seem dishonorable. It seems statesmanlike.
Yet somehow Nethercutt's change of mind does not seem very statesmanlike.
One reason, possibly, is that it appears so obviously self-serving. For
argument's sake, however, let us give Nethercutt the benefit of the doubt
and assume that he really dislikes serving in Congress but stays there out
of a sense of duty to his district and to his party. Another problem
Incumbency offers enormous powers of entrenchment. Nethercutt beat an
incumbent by running against entrenchment and now entrenches himself. That
is not like, say, promising never to buy a bicycle and then changing your
mind and buying one. It is like begging to borrow your friend's bicycle
for only a few minutes and then deciding to keep the bike after riding
away. That, perhaps, is what Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., was getting at
when The Wall Street Journal asked him about Nethercutt last year:
"This is the worst kind of lie to the people-you have traded this
pledge for their vote."
Frank was subsequently asked whether the same went for another
promise-breaker, Frank's fellow Massachusetts Democrat Meehan. Frank
didn't flinch. Meehan, he said, should quit. So far as I know, Frank is
the only member of Congress's ruling party-the Incumbents' Party-to take
such a stand. The others, including those Republicans who bray against
Bill Clinton's lack of honor and truthfulness, have maintained a deafening
silence. In fact, the Republican leadership, fearful of losing seats,
reportedly urged Nethercutt and other self-limiters to stay.
"This ought to bother people," William J. Bennett, the
Republican grandee and former Reagan and Bush Administration official,
told me. "I campaigned for Nethercutt in `94, and I liked him, I
liked his ideas. But he's now acting dishonorably. He's breaking his word,
and he's doing it without any apparent remorse. He's making people more
cynical about politics. Some promises should not be kept, because
circumstances change. But about the only circumstance that has changed
here that seems to me to be relevant is that he has gotten to like where
he is, and I don't think that's enough."
There is, however, a political circumstance that might be relevant: This
year, control of the House hangs in the balance. From Republicans' point
of view, keeping a promise but sacrificing a seat might be the moral
victory that loses the war. Principles, as Washington cynics say, aren't
much good if the party loses come election time.
Actually, it is not clear that Nethercutt is more likely to hold the seat
than some other Republican candidate would be; his broken promise has made
him vulnerable and drawn a primary opponent, though he is still favored to
win in his Republican-leaning district. Nor is it clear that his seat
would tip the balance in Congress. But grant both assumptions. The idea
that Republicans need to condone promise-breaking in order to save
conservatism from the Democrats would be more persuasive if the
Republicans were, at the moment, saving conservatism from the
The House Republicans were conservative for a while (1995 and 1996), and
they are still conservative on such symbolic issues as abortion. But that
is about the extent of it. Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski of the Cato
Institute note that most of the programs that the Republicans swore to
eliminate in 1995 have actually grown, and that the current Republican
Congress has just chalked up the highest increase (11 percent) in real
nondefense spending since-hold on-the Democrats under President Carter.
That is the greater conservative good that Nethercutt's re-election would
Given the way the Republicans are actually behaving, a more plausible
explanation for their complicity with Nethercutt is that they like power
and want to keep it. Not exactly shocking. But at least clarifying.
Nethercutt and his Republican colleagues in Congress have become the beast
that they promised to slay.