James Watkins wants term limits, but if no one else has to

leave Congress after six years, don't expect him to.

Before he can run

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Jay Inslee Challenger James Watkins Offers Unconvincing Term-Limits Pledge

James Watkins wants term limits, but if no one else has to

leave Congress after six years, don't expect him to.

Before he can run for Governor against Rob McKenna in 2012, seven-term Congressional Representative Jay Inslee has to fend off a challenge by former bank manager James Watkins.

Watkins, now at Microsoft, recently released a poll showing Inslee suffering a paltry 37 percent approval rating. Watkins' campaign commissioned the poll so the numbers are suspect, but if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's got Inslee on the ropes, what's Watkins plan for knocking him out? As you can see in the rather dry video above, pushing term limits.

It's the campaign tactic that time (nearly) forgot. And why was it abandoned in the first place? Because nobody really wants term limits.

Recall that in the early Nineties, Republicans swept into Congress thanks to Bill Clinton's inability to keep it in his pants and promises to reform government, in part by enacting term limits. But there was a hitch. It turned out politicians' egos won't let them just walk away from office.

So what are the chances Watkins will still be pro-term limits after a few years in D.C.? Here's what history has to say about it:

  • In 1994, Newt Gingrich orchestrated the Republican Congressional takeover, anchored by the "Contract with America," released six weeks before the general election. It included a pledge to, if the GOP gained power, enact term limits. When he first unveiled the Contract, Gingrich was trumpeting a three-year limit on House members. But a month after his party's sweeping victory, he decided perhaps six terms would be better, something Paul Jacob, then-director of the pro-limits advocacy group U.S. Term Limits, called a "betrayal."

  • The person who benefited the most from term-limits fervor was George Nethercutt. In 1994 Nethercutt not only signed Gingrich's Contract, but explicitly promised to serve only three terms. Thanks largely to that pledge, the good people of Spokane unceremoniously dumped then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley and voted in Nethercutt. Flash forward six years and Nethercutt should have been graciously retiring. But gosh, he was just so darn popular he decided that maybe he'd stay for another couple terms. Two other reps, including Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan (lest we be accused of unfairly going after the GOP on this topic), did the same.
  • And it's not just members of the House that can't seem to help themselves. In 1996 Susan Collins (DR-Maine) said she would serve only two terms, a promise she reiterated in 2002. But by 2007, she was campaigning for a third. Of course, now she's joined forces with Maria Cantwell on a bill to reduce carbon emissions, so maybe her reversal wasn't such a bad thing.
  • And most recently New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the city council to overturn its no-third-term ordinance, something he had once supported, so he could have another go.

Perhaps taking a cue from history, Watkins leaves himself a little wiggle room. Despite arguing that long tenures in Congress lead to corruption, Watkins says he'll only be leaving office after a few terms if everyone is subject to the same limits. "I don't think it's a good idea for us to have the good guys term-limit themselves out of Congress and leave the less-good guys in Congress," he says.

So where do you fall on the "good guy" scale when you run on an issue like term limits with no intention of actually leaving D.C.?

 
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