Peter Diamondstone, Cris Ericson, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Scott Milne and Jerry Trudell at a Vermont PBS debate Thursday night in Colchester
Republican Senate nominee Scott Milne on Thursday morning called for a constitutional amendment to prevent U.S. senators from serving more than two six-year terms. But at a Colchester debate that evening hosted by Vermont PBS, his Democratic opponent dismissed the idea.
"Well, we do have term limits. It's called elections," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has served seven terms and is seeking an eighth.
"I know my predecessor was elected the year I was born and served 'til I got there," the incumbent said, referring to the late senator George Aiken, who served from 1941 to 1975. "I think Vermont gained a great deal because of his tenure and his seniority."
Leahy, a Middlesex resident, argued that such a constitutional amendment "won't pass" and said that if voters felt he had "been there too long," they could "vote for somebody else."
Constitutional amendments do, indeed, face a high bar. Two-thirds of both the House and Senate would have to vote to send a proposed amendment to the states — three quarters of which would have to ratify it. (Alternately, two-thirds of the states could call for a constitutional convention, though that approach has never succeeded.)
In his proposal, Milne suggested a workaround if a constitutional amendment failed to pass muster: A bill revoking the pensions of senators who serve longer than two terms and members of the U.S. House who serve more than four. Milne entitled his proposed legislation, "The Leahy Act to Prevent Career Politics."
At Thursday's debate, Milne said he "completely disagree[d]" that regular elections were sufficient, arguing that "96 percent of incumbent senators that run for reelection get elected."
"I think this deadly concoction of special-interest money, which has infected Washington over the last 42 years, is ruining our country," the Pomfret Republican said. "I believe that Sen. Leahy is the poster child for what's gone wrong in Washington in the last 42 years."
Like Leahy, Milne also name-dropped Aiken, asserting that the late senator had spent just $5,000 on all his campaigns combined.
"He didn't have a 65-person staff to run around and help him get reelected," Milne said, referring to the incumbent's Senate employees. "He did it based on representing Vermonters in a truly Democratic way."
Jerry Trudell, an independent candidate from Derby, made a different historical allusion.
"I'd like to quote Sen. Leahy. This is a 42-year-old quote: 'It's time to bring a fresh, new approach and leadership to government,'" Trudell said, reading a selection from Leahy's 1972 campaign kickoff speech. "Term limits, I think, would be very useful, because of something called the seniority system, which creates entrenched power brokers, who bottle up good legislation in committee."
Trudell conceded that "experience does count," but he said he "strongly" supported term limits because he viewed them as necessary "to break this congressional logjam." He then turned to Milne and asked whether he would have supported term limits for Aiken.
"I've paid a lot of attention to politics," Milne said. "I did not believe we needed term limits until we see what's happened over the last 42 years."
The two other Senate candidates — Liberty Union nominee Peter Diamondstone and U.S. Marijuana Party nominee Cris Ericson — sided with the incumbent on the question. But that didn't keep them from throwing bombs.
"Even when he's a war criminal, I tend to agree with Sen. Leahy that we already have term limits, and they're called elections," said Diamondstone, who lives in Dummerston. "And I would support that as the only form of term limits, and I would get rid of it as it exists in the presidency currently in the Constitution."
"I'll agree that term limits are, you know, handled through elections, but Sen. Leahy has got to go, and he's got to go now," said Ericson, accusing Leahy of bringing F-35 fighter jets to Vermont, polluting Lake Champlain and failing to secure enough federal funding for low-income housing.
Given a chance to respond to the various allegations, Leahy said he had "gone all over the state" and "talked to thousands of people."
"Almost everywhere I go, Republicans and Democrats, they tell me, 'We're tired of this negative campaigning. We're tired of negative ads.' And they thank me for the fact that I've never run a negative ad. I don't run a negative campaign, and I'm not going to start it now."
Editor’s note: Paul Heintz served as co-moderator of the Vermont PBS senatorial debate.