Limiting terms of office gains popular support


LOS ANGELES -- Term limitation fever seems to be sweeping America this fall, spread by citizen outrage over the way government works. Or doesn't work.

Voters in California and Colorado are expected to approve ballot measures next month that would put an absolute limit on the service of state legislators.

Oklahoma recently became the first state to impose term limits on state legislators. And at least 20 other states are said to be considering some form of forced retirement for elected officials.

Career politicians, hoping to ride out this year's anti-incumbent wave, are starting to get behind the idea.

Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, in elective office for the last 24 years, is running as an outsider in his campaign for governor of California by backing tough term limits on state legislators. The tactic seems to be working; a Los Angeles Times poll found that voters were three times more likely to support him because of his backing for the term limit proposal.

President Bush gave a qualified endorsement of term limitation at a recent news conference.

And Vice President Dan Quayle, stumping for Republican candidates in California, urged voters to approve the term limit ballot initiative there.

"I don't believe it ought to stop with just limiting state legislators. Why not apply it to the Congress as well?" he told a GOP fund-raising breakfast in Los Angeles on Friday. "I say what's good for the president is good for the Congress," referring to the two-term limit on the chief executive.

Even some critics believe that Congress could well be forced to restrict its own tenure, if term limit sentiment continues to rage.

"People are fed up. They want a change. They are looking at what is going on in politics as not being in their interest, and they're searching for alternatives," said Jim Margolis, a Democratic campaign consultant.

Forcing incumbents to retire after six, eight or 12 years will guarantee more competition in elections, say proponents. And that means the system will be infused periodically with fresh blood and, presumably, new ideas.

Most states, including Maryland, already limit the terms of their governors. Critics claim that extending the idea to the legislature would make matters worse.

It would give more power, they argue, to unelected staff, bureaucrats and lobbyists, whose knowledge of the complex workings of government would exceed that of the rotating crew of new lawmakers.

"People see this as a silver bullet, a panacea, but to me that's really bogus," said H. Eric Schockman, a University of Southern California political scientist. "The last thing we need to be doing is taking away the most knowledgeable, experienced people in the legislature."

The Colorado plan, expected to win voter approval, would not only limit state legislators to 12 years; it would also apply to Colorado's congressional delegation.

That inevitably would force a constitutional showdown over a state's power to dictate qualifications for federal lawmakers; most legal experts think the courts would throw out the limits on senators and congressmen.

Politicians and political scientists are less certain, however, whether this fall's term limitation drives are the onset of a major new political movement, like the tax revolt of the 1970s, or simply a fad.

But if the idea does take off, the impact on government could be revolutionary.

Nowhere is that more evident than in trend-setting California, the nation's most populous state, where two very different proposals are on the ballot.

The more punitive -- and, according to polls, more popular -- is Proposition 140. It would strictly limit state senators to eight years in office and state assemblymen to six years.

Sponsored by Peter F. Schabarum, a conservative Republican on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and two conservative anti-tax organizations, Prop 140 would also strip legislators of their state pensions, forcing them to depend on Social Security for retirement, and reduce the size of their official staff.

"The death penalty," is what many members of the legislature call Prop 140, which enjoys almost 2-to-1 support in opinion surveys.

A competing initiative, Proposition 131, would allow legislators 12 years of continuous service; after four years out of office, ex-legislators could run for their old jobs again. Sponsored by Democratic Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp and endorsed by a consortium of reform groups, including California Common Cause and the Sierra Club, and Ralph Nader, the measure also would impose a variety of campaign reforms, including public financing.

By law, the ballot proposal that gets more voters would prevail.

Opponents, led by Democratic state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and a bipartisan group of state legislators, are about to launch a $4 million to $5 million campaign to try to defeat both initiatives.

Among the arguments advanced by the opposition is that term limitation proposals are quick-fix gimmicks fraught with pitfalls and unanticipated consequences.

"It's unfortunately like going to a cheap repairman, and you'll get the same result," said Jay Ziegler, a spokesman for the opposition coalition.

Proponents reply that the state government's increasing inability to deal with California's mounting environmental, social and economic problems, dramatized by a fiscal deadlock that left the state without a budget for a month this year, makes term limitation a risk worth taking.

"It can't be any worse than it is now," said John Phillips, a Los Angeles lawyer and chairman of California Common Cause.

The current system makes it virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent, he explained, noting that the 97 percent success rate of legislators seeking re-election in California in 1988 virtually equaled the 98.5 percent figure racked up by members of Congress that year.

"Term limitation is the only outlet for the rage voters are feeling. It's the closest thing to voting 'throw-the-rascals out,' " Mr. Phillips said.

The latest opinion surveys show that Americans, by a 3-to-1 margin, favor limiting terms of office of members of Congress.

That's a substantial increase in support for an idea that has enjoyed varying degrees of popularity since the earliest days of the Republic, when the Founding Fathers considered, and then rejected, it.

In recent years, conservative Republicans have promoted term limits as a way to break the Democrats' hegemony over Congress and most state legislatures. The 1988 Republican platform endorsed the idea, and the national term-limitation organization is run out of the Virginia office of Republican political consultant Eddie Mahe, a former official of the Republican National Committee.

A growing number of liberals and Democrats now seem to be attracted to the idea. Proponents point out that in Colorado, the major victims of term limitation could be Republicans, who enjoy large majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

Proponents say that limiting legislators would simply be a way of reviving a tradition of having ordinary citizens serve in the capital for a time and then return to private life.

But critics, warning of the unintended consequences of political reforms, like to cite the 22nd Amendment limit on presidential terms. Promoted by Republicans in the late 1940s, it was designed to prevent another Democrat from gaining a long-term lease on the White House after Franklin D. Roosevelt won election to four consecutive terms.

The only presidents to be denied a third term since have been Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Mr. Reagan began publicly speaking out for repealing the 22nd Amendment when it became clear that his popularity might well have made it possible for him to remain in power in Washington, instead of retiring to California when his term expired.

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