Limiting terms by law — and by the ballot

Updated: 2014-02-10T22:34:58Z


The Kansas City Star

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts’ campaign ran into a stretch of icy roadway last week when a New York Times story suggested the Republican’s residency in Kansas is, well, complicated.

Roberts’ staff called the story a hit piece, but the facts seem undisputed: Roberts owns a home in Dodge City, which he rents out, and leases his “official” residence from a supporter.

Roberts also owns a condominium in Alexandria, Va., another condo in Maryland and parts of three parcels in South Carolina, according to his last financial disclosure.

It isn’t clear what impact Roberts’ scattered real estate empire will have on his re-election chances. Nobody really believed Bob Dole lived in Russell, Kan., and he easily won re-election when he was in the Senate.

Residency is a very squishy concept. In essence, under federal law, you live where you say you live.

But Roberts’ long residential resume may suggest a more fundamental political problem, one that Milton Wolf, his Republican primary opponent, has pointed out for months: Roberts has been in Washington for a long, long, long time.

He began working in D.C. as a legislative aide in the late 1960s. He was first elected to the House in 1980, serving 16 years. Now he wants a fourth six-year term in the Senate.

There was a time when the perceived problem of entrenched incumbency convinced millions of people that legislative service should be limited by law. Term limits were particularly popular in local and state governments.

A good idea? Twenty years later, no one knows for sure. Kansas has unlimited legislative terms, yet its work product seems similar to that of term-limited lawmakers in Missouri. Other states report mixed results.

As a result, the public clamor for term limits has cooled.

That hasn’t stopped some legislators from trying again. Just last week, a handful of U.S. House Republicans proposed limiting congressional service to 24 years.

We can guess how Pat Roberts would vote. Actually, we don’t have to guess. In 2012, he opposed a nonbinding resolution supporting congressional term limits.

Like all long-term incumbents, Roberts argues his seniority helps Kansas. He’s the senior Republican on the Agriculture Committee, for example.

But Roberts just voted against the farm bill. What good is seniority if it yields crucial legislation he can’t support?

Wolf remains a long shot. In 2012, nine out of 10 congressional incumbents running for re-election won.

But The Times’ story makes the challenger’s argument more clear: Voters don’t need a law to limit terms. They only need a ballot.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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