In Texas, an advocacy group displayed an oversized image of an unsmiling U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar on billboards with a message that the Texas Democrat doesn’t support term limits. In Utah, a primary challenger said Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee should end his campaign for a third term because he once backed a measure limiting senators to two terms.
In Congress, scores of Republican lawmakers say they want to bind representatives to three terms and senators to two.
The term limits debate is back, and its reemergence comes at an awkward time for Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland. The conservative lawmaker was long an ardent term limits backer, sponsoring legislation and making public pronouncements. But he’s remained silent on the issue this year as he seeks a seventh term after pledging more than a decade ago to serve no more than six.
It remains to be seen whether Harris, 65, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist and Maryland’s only GOP congressman, pays a political price for that. He is running in the 1st District, which the General Assembly redrew this year as part of redistricting. The district — including the Eastern Shore, Harford County and a portion of Baltimore County — remains Republican-friendly.
History shows politicians regularly break term limit pledges with impunity.
“At one time, breaking a term limits pledge could be costly — though rarely deadly,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The opponent just had to run a clip of the candidate saying, ‘I’m only serving three terms!’ with a second clip of the congressman breaking the pledge. Now, most voters just shrug. Some are mainly amused to see how they explain the breaking of a promise.”
Neither Harris nor his staff would be interviewed about term limits. They didn’t return calls or respond to questions emailed to his campaign and his congressional office.
The congressman is a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and has been aligned with former President Donald Trump. He filed for reelection in February, saying it was imperative that Republicans regain a House majority.
“Let’s Save America from the radical progressives who are in control now,” he posted on Facebook.
Harris was asked last year by WBAL-AM about his 2010 pledge to serve no more than six terms, or 12 years. He was a state senator representing parts of Baltimore and Harford counties and first-time congressional candidate when he made the promise. It came during a period of voter anger against government and “career politicians.”
“Look, the situation is very different from then. No one would have anticipated that we have the pushback from liberals and socialists,” Harris said in the interview.
His sixth term will end in January 2023.
He had $1.9 million on hand for his reelection bid as of March 31, according to Federal Election Commission records, and spent tens of thousands of dollars for polling, direct mail and fundraising in the first three months of the year. He does not face any primary opposition.
Heather Mizeur, 49, a former state delegate and 2014 gubernatorial candidate, is running against Dave Harden, 59, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official, in the July 19 Democratic primary for the right to challenge Harris in November. They’ve incorporated Harris’ term limits promise into their criticism of him.
“His failure to keep his term-limit pledge is one element of his overall poor record,” Harden said in an email response to The Baltimore Sun.
Following up on his 2010 call for a 12-year limit on senators and U.S. House members, Harris issued a news release in 2013 announcing his introduction of a measure limiting House members to no more than six consecutive terms.
“We need to break the gridlock in Washington caused in part by career politicians,” it said.
As recently as 2015, the Cecil Whig reported Harris told a high school government class in North East that he “planned to retire after 12 years in Congress, if voters elected him to do so, noting he was in favor of 12-year term limits.”
U.S. Term Limits, a Washington-based advocacy group that’s behind the Cuellar billboard in Texas, says no Maryland lawmakers are among the 81 House members and 18 senators who have signed its pledge to support limits of three House terms and two Senate terms.
Nick Tomboulides, the organization’s executive director, said he would welcome Harris’ support and that “I don’t think it’s hypocritical” to sign such a pledge after not honoring a previous one.
“We don’t think it’s inconsistent at all because we don’t advocate for self-limits,” Tomboulides said. “If Mike Lee or Harris stepped down, Mitch McConnell is not going to step down, Nancy Pelosi is not going to step down. We only advocate for an amendment that would affect all the members.” McConnell, 80, the Senate Republican leader, was elected 38 years ago. House Speaker Pelosi, 82, the California Democrat and Baltimore native, has held office for 35 years.
Term limits was a popular campaign topic in the 1990s, helping Republicans win House and Senate majorities in 1994. The issue suffered a setback when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states lacked authority to limit their congressional delegations.
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Supporters have since pursued the more daunting task of getting 34 state legislatures to call for a convention in which a term limits amendment could be introduced. Term limits could also be enacted by a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and then majority votes in 38 state legislatures.
The issue has reemerged this year as Republicans seek to eliminate Democrats’ narrow majorities in both chambers in November’s midterm elections.
“This is sort of a right-wing, populist thing,” said political science professor Todd Eberly of St. Mary’s College.
Among those promoting term limits are Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina. Cawthorn, like Harris, is a member of the Freedom Caucus.
Harris’ district provides him a built-in advantage should his term limit stance become prominent in his race.
The Democratic-controlled General Assembly originally crafted a 1st District that included portions of Anne Arundel County in which voters are more likely to back Democrats. But a judge rejected the state map that included those boundaries, saying they substantially disadvantaged Republican candidates and voters. In a replacement map that became law, the 1st District no longer reaches across the Bay Bridge into Anne Arundel.
The result, Eberly said, is that while his constituents may not like his term limits flip-flop, the district’s Republicans may think: “Sure, you can punish him for breaking his promise. But if you do that, you’re going to replace him with a Democrat.”
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