During a debate in 1996, someone asked Republican Susan Collins of Maine, a U.S. Senate candidate, whether she backed term limits.

“I do support term limits,” Collins responded, “and I have pledged that if I’m elected, I will only serve two terms.”

Susan Collins vowed to serve no more than two terms during a 1996 WMTW debate before her election to a U.S. Senate seat representing Maine. C-Span

The following year, after she won, Collins was one of 22 senators who co-sponsored a measure calling for a constitutional amendment to bar senators from serving more than two six-year terms and prohibit House members from serving more than three two-year terms.

Twenty-two years later, Collins is the only senator who backed that resolution who is still serving on Capitol Hill. She has argued in the past that she underestimated the importance of seniority for lawmakers who want to help Maine most.

Longevity, after all, is the reason Collins is likely, if she wins next year, to become the chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which doles out much of the nondefense spending in America. It’s a position that could bring more federal cash to the Pine Tree State and seniority decides which senator leads it.

Collins, one of the most senior senators, is seeking a fifth term. Four Democrats and two other challengers hope to send her packing instead.

At least three of them are promising they won’t follow her lead by running for more than two terms.

One of the Democrats who hopes to unseat Collins next year, 32-year-old Bre Kidman of Saco, endorsed the two-term pledge “like the one Susan Collins made when I was in elementary school.”

Another of the Democratic contenders, Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, said she would sign the pledge and “would actually keep it.”

“To me, the issue of term limits is directly related to money in politics — incumbents get money from special interest groups and lobbyists because they are incumbents — and if we didn’t have money in politics and there wasn’t that advantage for incumbents, we would have a more level playing field. We’d also see much more turnover in Congress,” she said.

Danielle VanHelsing, a Sangerville independent who is running for the Senate, said term limits “are necessary to prevent the kind of reign many politicians have held in higher offices.”

“I want them for offices for the same reason we made them for the president, no one person should hold power for too long a time,” VanHelsing said.

House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, generally considered the front-runner among Democrats, could not be reached, but has said in the past that she opposes term limits. She told a radio station a few years ago that “the ballot box and the voters and how they pay attention and the decisions they make are really what should define term limits.”

Term limit promises are often ignored by politicians once they are entrenched in Washington, but they remain a hot issue for some voters who think one way to keep legislators from growing too distant from constituents is to make them come home after two or three terms in office.

President Donald Trump is among those who back the idea.

“If I’m elected president, I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Trump told a Colorado campaign rally in 2016. “They’ve been talking about that for years. Decades of failure in Washington and decades of special interest dealing must and will come to an end.”

He has not, however, done anything to overcome opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and other legislative leaders.

In the U.S. House race in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, it’s also become an issue since the three Republicans vying for the opportunity to take on U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, have each endorsed term limits.

Two of them, Adrienne Bennett of Bangor and Eric Brakey of Auburn, recently signed a pledge to stick to no more than three terms in the House. Another, Dale Crafts of Lisbon, said he also supports the idea.

What it comes down to, Crafts said, is that “I believe in public service and not political careers.”

“This isn’t about feel good legislation,” Bennett said in a statement on Twitter. “It’s about structural change we all agree with.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that term limit restrictions for Congress are unconstitutional, spurring efforts by supporters to secure passage of an amendment that would put them in place permanently.

Golden said establishing term limits for Congress “would require an amendment to the Constitution, which is only possible with the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate or a constitutional convention, and then ratification by three-fourths of the states.”

“I believe strongly in the need to reform our political system, especially Congress, but my priority for the arduous process of amending the Constitution is rooting out the corrupting force of big money and special interests by abolishing the wrong-headed Supreme Court decision on Citizens United” that cleared the way for unlimited spending to influence campaigns, he said.

Critics of term limits generally argue that they would take power away from voters, hand more authority to unelected staffers, discourage expertise among lawmakers and force out worthwhile legislators for no good reason.

Kidman said there is “an argument to be made for institutional knowledge.”

But, the Saco lawyer said, “the focus on getting reelected” undermines lawmakers “from acting to their fullest capacity for the length of time they have already been chosen to serve.”

“I strongly believe that time needs to be spent doing the job the voters hired them for — not working on getting hired for the next one,” Kidman said. “Enacting term limits would force elected officials to use the time they have to its greatest potential. I want a senator who will spend their term fighting like they don’t have another election to lose — and I intend to serve that way if elected. Six years can be a lot of time, if you’re giving it your all.”

Term limits, which polls show are supported by at least two-thirds of Americans, have been a popular rallying cry for outsiders since Ross Perot’s quixotic 1992 presidential race.

Perot said that year that with term limits, winning a congressional seat would no longer be “a lifetime career opportunity” and would encourage people to “go back to their homes” instead of cashing in within the confines of the Beltway.

“They’re all nice people,” Perot said, “they’re just in a bad system. I don’t think there are any villains, but, boy, is the system rotten.”

Fresh ideas and new blood were part of the reason Collins won in 1996.

That year, she faced Democrat Joe Brennan, by then a staple in Maine politics for a generation.

The Washington Post mentioned during the campaign that Collins told Rotary Club members to close their eyes the next time they hear Brennan speak “and ask yourself what year you’re in. It could be 1964, the year he first ran. The world has changed, but Joe Brennan’s ideas haven’t.”

Now Democrats question if Collins is the one who’s out of touch.

When Collins helped sponsor the unsuccessful 1997 measure to add a term limits amendment, U.S. Sen. John Ashbrook, a Missouri Republican, told colleagues the proposal “cuts to the very heart of who we are as a party, as a polity, as a people.”

“Incumbency is, and always has been, the single greatest perk in politics,” he said. “Committee assignments translate into campaign contributions. Bills mean bucks. The simple fact remains, the average incumbent spends more of the taxpayers’ money on franked mail than the average challenger spends on his entire campaign.”

Ashbrook said opposition to the idea “has come from careerists in the Congress whose livelihood is at stake. These self-proclaimed keepers of the public faith worry aloud about the impact of lost legislative wisdom. And, in the cloakrooms and Capitol corridors, they whisper about ‘protecting the people from themselves.’”

Another Republican who endorsed the resolution, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, said at the time that “Congress now more closely resembles a professional ruling class than the citizen legislature our Founding Fathers envisioned. “

“This is significant because a Congress full of career legislators behaves differently than a citizen legislature,” he said. “Over time, after years of inside-the-beltway thinking, elected officials tend to lose touch with the long-term best interests of the Nation. Instead, they become slaves to short-term public opinion in their never-ending quest for reelection,” Thompson said.

Both men said they were speaking on behalf of all the sponsors of the proposal, including Collins.

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