Whoa, Rick Santelli, on Term Limits!

Rick Santelli, CNBC business reporter, should be considered the "Father of the TEA Party."  His impassioned plea in 2009, on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, gave birth to the TEA Party movement.  It was "the rant heard 'round the world."

Rick Santelli was right then about Big Government and especially about the false premises of the Obama administration's economic policies.  He reminded us all that Castro's Cuba tried socializing the economy, and now they're all driving 1954 Chevies...if they drive at all.

I applaud Rick's keen observations on business, and I salute what he's done in his career as crusading journalist. Tragically, the American public education system fails to teach the core principles of economics to millions of students.  American kids continue to be taught that government provides jobs and incomes.

But when Rick Santelli spoke with Sean Hannity on his radio talk show recently, Rick verged into an area not entirely within his considerable expertise.  He came out loud and strong for legislative term limits.  Sean agreed with him.

The strong desire for term limits clearly helped Republicans gain the majority in Congress for the first time in 1994.  Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich promised to vote on term limits as part of the Contract with America.  And that promise was kept.  But term limits failed.

The case for congressional term limits is a strong one.  Americans would like to have citizen-legislators again.  My friend Gov. Rick Perry of Texas strongly advocated cutting congressional pay in half and cutting their sessions to just a few months.  Columnist George Will has pumped for term limits for decades.  Both Gov. Perry and George Will doubtless see the impact of career politicians in Washington voting for ever more federal spending and enriching themselves in the process.

I would like to offer some cautions, however.  First, we are unlikely to get congressional term limits as long as Democrats have at least 41 seats in the U.S. Senate.  None of us has seen a time when Democrats had fewer seats in the Senate than that.  With 41 seats, they can block any attempt to legislate congressional term limits.

Second, only Republicans are likely to take the term limits pledge and get elected on it.

Two such Republicans were Dr. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and George Nethercutt of Washington State.  Both were elected in 1994.  Coburn kept his pledge and left the House of Representatives after three terms.  Nethercutt knocked off Speaker of the House Tom Foley in an historic upset.  After three terms, however, Mr. Nethercutt sincerely felt that the times had changed, and he switched his position on term limits.

Former Rep. Tom Coburn was elected to the U.S. Senate by Oklahoma voters, who were doubtless impressed that he had kept his word.  Sen. Coburn has since been a leader in the effort to bring down federal spending.  Former Congressman Nethercutt had a good voting record in the House, but when he sought to unseat Washington's very liberal Sen. Patty Murray, in 2004, his violating his pledge on term limits came back to haunt him. Sen. Murray is a big-spending liberal.  Had Mr. Nethercutt been able to defeat her, I'm sure I would have agreed with his voting record far more than with hers.

The fact is that very liberal Democrats will block any attempt to enact congressional term limits.  The only ones who will take the pledge on term limits are conservatives like Coburn and Nethercutt.  And if they see that term limits are not going to be enacted anyway, they may be tempted, as Mr. Nethercutt was, to stay on to try to limit the harms liberals are doing on a host of other issues.

Congressional term limits would be fine -- if we could get them, and if they applied equally to liberals in Congress.  Since there is no realistic prospect of either condition being met, I sincerely urge my fellow conservatives not to pursue this issue.

Henry Hyde was a conservative champion, a hero to pro-lifers.  He served for many terms in the U.S. House, and most of us were glad he was there every time he was elected.  I'd say Mr. Hyde's long and distinguished service to the nation is the best argument against term limits. And Henry Hyde was strongly opposed to congressional term limits.

Robert Morrison is a writer in Annapolis.  He served in the Reagan administration.