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Long before Trump, Georgia politicos paid lip service to term limits -- but the needle hasn't moved

WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump isn't the first person to propose "draining the swamp" here in the nation's capital. Many current and former Georgia lawmakers have paid lip service to the idea of congressional term limits over the past two decades -- but the talk hasn't translated into much action.

Term limits obviously aren't very popular among D.C.'s political class. Who voluntarily wants to give up power?

Proponents of the idea say it prevents lawmakers from becoming captive to Washington institutions, lobbyists and the industries they oversee. Opponents say it robs Congress of something important --  institutional knowledge -- which is critical for effective governance.

The concept of term limits has proven to be a popular one among Georgia's freshman class of GOP congressmen. The question is whether they adhere to their campaign pledges if the status quo remains the same and there is no enforcement mechanism in place.

House GOP freshmen Rick Allen and Jody Hice backed the idea when they ran for Congress in 2014. One of the most vocal proponents has been U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who pledged to serve no more than two terms, or 12 years, in the Senate.

Perdue, who criticized former rival Jack Kingston for his stance on term limits during the 2014 Senate primary, enthusiastically embraced Trump's proposal of limiting congressmen to six years and senators to 12 earlier this week, saying it would "help break this vicious cycle of gridlock that is crippling Congress from getting things done.”

Efforts to move the gears on a constitutional amendment to create those term limits have gone nowhere on Capitol Hill in recent years, since Democrats and many Republicans oppose the idea. Former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich was able to eke out a majority vote for such a proposal when he was House speaker in 1995, but it fell short of the two-thirds support needed to advance.

Many past supporters of such a constitutional amendment, including Roswell Rep. Tom Price and Kingston when he was in Congress, have not set deadlines for themselves to step down. Indeed, we could not think of a single Georgia congressman who left Washington because of self-imposed term limits. (It's more common for lawmakers get voted out, run for higher office or leave for other reasons.)

Kingston, who had to leave Congress in late 2014 after he lost the Senate primary to Perdue, explained why he backed the constitutional amendment creating term limits but didn't proactively set one for himself :

“One of the key things is that everybody jump into the water at the same time.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson voted in favor of term limits when he was in the state Senate. In 2014, he said the issue is best left up to the voters.

"We have term limits every two years or every six years or every four years. That's the best term limit you could possibly have," Isakson said, according to the Associated Press.

Term limits may not be popular on Capitol Hill, but Gingrich was ultimately able to codify a form of it, albeit a much narrower one, before he was forced out in the late 1990s. House Republicans are barred from serving as committee chairs for more than six years -- a rule that's still in place to this day.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.