WASHINGTON - A national campaign was launched Tuesday to reinvigorate Congress by passing a constitutional amendment limiting members to 12 years in each house. "We must not permit the establishment in this country of a separate governing class," said former Rep. Jim Coyne, a Pennsylvania Republican, announcing the campaign by Americans to Limit Congressional Terms.
"This is something we all learned in kindergarten. This is a concept of taking turns," said Cleta Mitchell, a Democrat who served in the Oklahoma Legislature.
A Democratic campaign organization immediately attacked the group, which calls itself bipartisan, as a Republican Trojan horse. Democrats now have a majority in both houses.
But Coyne cited a Gallup poll from last month that showed 70 percent of Americans favor some limit on terms.
The same poll showed 70 percent of Congress against the idea.
"The top one percent in pay, good job security, generous retirement benefits, large support staffs, not fixed hours . . .," Coyne said.
"Is it any wonder that, as he left Washington, Jim Wright remarked that this was the best job in the world?"
Former Speaker Wright resigned his office under a cloud last year, which critics point out is one of the few ways anyone leaves the House of Representatives these days. Incumbents enjoy sizable campaign advantages, from free postage to a long leg up on fund-raising; and those who stand for re-election are returned to office at the rate of 98.5 percent.
"That's the point," said Gordon J. Humphrey, a New Hampshire Republican who will retire this year after 12 years in the Senate.
On his way out, Humphrey introduced the amendment to limit terms.
It calls for a maximum of six two-year House terms and two six-year Senate terms (although a person winning election to the other house could legally serve for a total of 24 years.) The bill has eight co-sponsors in the Senate, and organizers on Tuesday let slip a previously private endorsement from Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 87-year-old South Carolina Republican who a day earlier announced he would seek a seventh six-year term.
Senators are more accustomed to living by their wits. As a group they have proved more vulnerable to challenge than House members, and Gallup found them far more disposed to limits (although only 21 senators answered the survey).
But if Americans to Limit Congressional Terms expects to see its amendment approved the way the other 26 have been passed, it must start by winning a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress.
From there, the amendment would be sent to state legislatures for ratification. Three-fourths, or 38, states must approve it.
To entice a sitting Congress to at least consider this amendment, Americans to Limit Congressional Terms proposes to let current members decide whether, or at what point, the limit should apply to them.
Coyne noted that the 22nd Amendment, which limits a president to two terms, was approved in 2 1/2 years, and the 26th, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, passed in less.
"We have a very, very real chance of doing it quickly," he said.
The only other avenue to amendment has never been attempted: If asked by two-thirds, or 34, of the states, Congress must convene a constitutional convention. There an amendment faces the same three-quarters majority by state.
Leaders of the new organization made a point Tuesday of calling on state legislatures to back the amendment.
In any event, any amendment destabilizing congressional incumbents may face better odds at the state level, where lawmakers find their political ambitions butting against federal seats that rarely open up.
"And that is one of my long-term aspirations, is to run for Congress," said State Rep. Michael Langton, D-Jacksonville, who has introduced a version of the proposed amendment in the Florida House.
Similar measures are reportedly pending in at least nine other states, and South Dakota has approved one.
Langton emphasized the need for new ideas, fresh blood and an alternative to the strict seniority system in Congress, noting that in the Florida Legislature he was named chairman of a major committee, Children and Youth, in only his third year.
But the chairman of the organization dedicated to keeping Democrats in Congress says there's plenty of new blood already.
"One should see this movement for what it is: An attempt by the Republican Party to legislate congressional victories because it has failed at the ballot box," said Rep. Beryl Anthony of Arkansas, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"During the last 12 years, there have been 306 new members of the House. This is hardly indicative of a static body. The only problem for the Republicans is the new members continue to be mostly Democrats."
The group's advisory board is indeed heavy with Republicans. All but eight of 33 former members of Congress are GOP (and only about a third retired from office; the rest lost elections).
But Mitchell, the Oklahoma Democrat, called the amendment campaign an opportunity to revitalize a stagnant party.
"The Democratic Party has more to offer the American people than the power of the incumbency," she said.
- Information from AP was used in this report.