The temptation is to depict a struggle between two Kays. In one corner, Kay Bailey Hutchison circa 1993, the one who bluntly stated, “If Texans send me to the Senate I will serve only two full terms.” In the other, a present day Hutchison who, in the middle of her promised-never-to-happen third term, has the audacity to sign on to a bill, as she did last week, that would set congressional term limits (the latest version, by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, advocates 12 years in the Senate and six in the House).
Hutchison’s rivals are quick to point out the contradiction. “Sen. Hutchison appears to support term limits for everyone except herself,” said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry. “Being governor is about taking a stand on issues and sticking to them, something Sen. Hutchison has had difficulty with over the years.”
Term limit supporters in Texas have had so many difficulties over the years that by the time Hutchison decided to go for the hat trick in 2006, there were few left to raise a ruckus. One of the most fervent term limit supporters from the movement's 1990s heyday — former Texans for Term Limitation head Rob Mosbacher, Jr. — seemed surprised to hear the issue even brought up this week. “I haven’t been involved in this stuff in over a decade,” he said. “The movement sort of petered out because of the difficulty of getting anything enacted by the very people whose terms it would have limited — coupled with it not being a silver bullet, which it never was.”
With regards to Hutchison's present situation, Mosbacher says, “It’s human nature. If you’re the only one self-imposing this rule, and nobody else is observing it, you’ve got to think twice about that. I’m more in favor of having the same rules for everybody.”
Think twice is exactly what Hutchison did. “When this came up in 2006,” says Hutchison spokesman Joe Pounder, “Sen. Hutchison was very clear that while she believes in term limits, she doesn’t believe that Texas should be put at an unfair disadvantage by unilaterally limiting its senators to two terms and losing a powerful senior member.”
Had Hutchison — who first cosponsored term-limits legislation in 1995, and voted for a similar resolution in 1996 — stepped down as promised, she would have been one of few lawmakers who adhere to campaign pledges of self-limitation. Some can't even stick to what's written down in statute. “The world is replete with examples of people who have decided on having their own legal limits, who then get near the end of those and want to change the Constitution,” Mosbacher said.
Others note the timing of the changes of heart and wonder just how sincere that sentiment ever was.
“It was a Republican political flag they ran up for a long time until they got control," says former Texas Speaker of the House Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, who was a frequent target of Mosbacher's group. "Then, term limits wasn’t as critical as it was before. It’s when someone who’s not in control would like to get rid of someone who is in control, and they can’t do it with voters.”
Laney, who served a record-tying ten years as Speaker from 1993 to 2003 and whose time in the House ran from 1973 to 2007, still hasn’t been sold on the premise that, as Mosbacher puts it, “we want our legislators to be as close to citizen life as possible.”
With term limits, says Laney, “You end up having inexperienced people in leadership positions who don’t have institutional and historical knowledge, so you tend to make the same mistakes. It also creates a better atmosphere for bureaucracy to control because people are not in public office enough, so they rely on agency heads for guidance. Generally speaking, it’s not the freshman members making things happen.”
“That’s assuming not everybody’s bound by the same limits,” says Mosbacher, taking up the old fight. “If everybody’s on the same time schedule — say 12 years, which is plenty of time — then you rise much quicker through the ranks of seniority. If it takes you more than two years to find your way around, you might not be very quick.”
He brings up a seemingly perfect example of how, even in a limitless system, time isn’t everything.
“Look at Joe Straus,” he says of the House's current Speaker. “How many terms has he served?”
The answer: Three — though it could be argued that Straus’ first (and, thus far, only) session as Speaker ended in something of a bureaucratic quagmire, with lawmakers accomplishing little more than running down the clock in the final week.
For better or worse, not all politicians climb at Straus' pace, and some goals take more than three terms to accomplish. Limits can undo even the best-laid plans of well-meaning politicians. In 2007, when a frustrated now-State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, was forced out of her seat on the city council, she penned an editorial in the Houston Chronicle that read, “For me, the term limits debate is personal. Not because I’ll be leaving my city council position in a few days or because term limits prohibited me from seeking re-election; rather, it’s about a public works project in my neighborhood that took me a decade and a half to complete.”
Another term-limited Texas leader, Houston Mayor Bill White, echoes Laney’s sentiments. “Voters always have the right to limit the term of an elected official by voting them out of office,” he says. White is seeking to replace Hutchison in the U.S. Senate when she leaves.
Voters chose Hutchison for the Senate office every time she asked. Now she has the luxury of leaving Senate voluntarily when she feels her work — specifically, fighting the Obama administration on healthcare reform and cap-and-trade legislation — is completed. (She originally said she’d be out by the end of the year, but now she says it won’t be until after the March primary).
Whenever she leaves Washington, her commitment to at least advocating term limits will follow her to the state level. Echoing what she said in her first run for U.S. Senate, she now wants term limits for governors. “We need results, not politics," she says. "And that starts with term limits for Texas Governor. For any governor, eight years is enough." More time than that, she says, is unhealthy. “It invites patronage. It tempts cronyism. And it has to stop now.”
Her chief rival, Rick Perry, has been governor since late 2000. “It makes good political rhetoric to say somebody’s been there too many years,” Laney says.
If the political rhetoric turns into a governorship, and Hutchison finds herself approaching that eight-year mark (which she has not explicitly committed herself to), will it be enough for her?
"The danger is that you stay so long in Austin that you're closer to the lobby and a variety of institutional influences," says Mosbacher, voicing a complaint similar to the one Hutchison's campaign currently levels at Perry, already the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
Will Hutchison, as Governor, “take a stand” and “stick to” the message that got her elected, or will she, as she did as a U.S. Senator, maintain that her accumulated knowledge and experience in the position dictates a different approach?
“That’s something an individual has to decide and live with,” says Laney. “A lot of people change their attitude about the legislative process. When facts are made known to them, they may have a different attitude about the way things are.”