SEATTLE — Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st, was incorrectl listed in yesterday's Sun as being in favor of limitations on terms in office. In fact, Mr. Gilchrest is undecided on the issue.
The Sun regrets the errors.
SEATTLE -- The growing movement for term limits on Congress, potentially the most profound change in American government in 75 years, is nearing a crucial turning point.
This week, Washington state voters will decide whether to force their entire congressional delegation to retire within three years, including House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, the nation's highest-ranking legislator.
Also on the line in Tuesday's election is the future of the term limit drive.
If it is approved, as many here are predicting, the Washington term limit measure probably would spark the first federal court test of a state's authority to restrict the tenure of its U.S. representatives and senators.
Even legal experts sympathetic to the movement believe that could be a tough case to make. And if term limits are overturned by the courts, "in the end, it's going to have been a long walk for a short beer," said Charles J. Cooper, a former top Justice Department official and an architect of the Reagan administration's social policy in the courts.
With a definitive court ruling many months or even years away, however, the immediate prospects for the anti-incumbent movement appear bright indeed.
Already, voters in three states -- California, Colorado and Oklahoma -- have imposed limits on state legislators, though only Colorado's affects congressional terms as well (but not until 2002). At least 10 more states could have term limit measures on the ballot next year, including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Massachusetts and Arizona.
In Washington, the first state to consider retroactive limits, incumbents who have already reached the maximum (six years for representatives, 12 years for senators) would be allowed just one more term. Term limitations would also be imposed on state officials.
Mr. Foley, who would be forced to leave Congress in 1994, calls the proposal "patently unconstitutional." He and many others believe that the only way terms can be limited is through a constitutional amendment like the one in 1951 that restricts the president to two four-year terms.
But proponents point out that the Constitution is silent on the question.
"Something cannot be unconstitutional that has never been addressed by the court," said Cleta Deatherage Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Institute.
While acknowledging that an adverse ruling would be a serious setback for the movement, she and other supporters believe that Congress may eventually be forced to limit itself, regardless of the outcome in the courts. The precedent: popular election of U.S. senators, the last great procedural change in government, in 1916, when state legislatures relinquished their right to elect senators.
"It's hard for some people to identify with the strength of the
public sentiment on this issue," said Mrs. Mitchell, a former Democratic state legislator in Oklahoma.
Until recently, the term limit drive was dismissed as little more than a conservative Republican scheme to achieve through "undemocratic" means what couldn't be done at the ballot box -- oust Democratic legislators.
Indeed, its most prominent supporters are Republicans, President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle, and the 1988 Republican platform specifically endorses term limits on Congress.
But the movement has expanded its base, thanks at least in part to another season of scandal in the nation's capital. Last month, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. became the first 1992 Democratic presidential candidate to come out in favor of the idea.
Both sides agree that the Senate's mishandling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination, coming after revelations of congressional check bouncing, ticket fixing and other abuses, has fueled public sentiment in favor of limits.
"There is no question. It has contributed to this general anger that people feel toward elected officials and politicians," said Mark Brown, an official of the public employees union in Washington state who is helping direct the campaign to defeat term limits.
Polls show that popular support for limiting congressional terms cuts across demographic and partisan lines here and nationwide; a new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey shows that Americans favor the idea by a margin of better than 3-to-1.
"The term limit movement is supported by people on both the right and the left who have been frustrated by incumbency advantage," said Michael J. Malbin, a political scientist at the State University of New York, Albany.
"It's an idea that captures a large number of concerns and frustrations in a single concept. Once the idea was put forward, it had an attractiveness that gave it impetus," he said.
Here in Washington, one of only 10 states that went for Democrat Michael S. Dukakis over Mr. Bush in 1988, the term limit fight has stood traditional political coalitions on their head.
The campaign was started by a handful of liberal activists angered by their inability to unseat Representative Norman Dicks, a seven-term liberal incumbent, in last year's Democratic primary.
But without the support of a conservative Washington, D.C.-based group known as Citizens for Congressional Reform, the proposal would never have made it onto the ballot, concedes Sherry Bockwinkel, campaign manager for Initiative 553, as the measure is formally known.
CCR has provided about three-fourths of the $740,000 raised in support of the initiative, including funds to hire canvassers from out of state to collect signatures at 40 cents apiece for petitions to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Last month, the Tacoma News Tribune revealed that CCR's "so-called grass-roots effort" for term limits was bankrolled by Kansas billionaires David H. and Charles G. Koch, who have a history of involvement in libertarian and conservative causes.
David J. Olson, a government professor at the University of Washington, said the movement's chances of success here were aided by the failure of politicians in Olympia, the state capital, and in Congress to recognize the threat they faced.
"They were oblivious to it," he said, adding that this only seemed to confirm the argument of term limit advocates that the incumbents had lost touch with average citizens.
The campaign to fight the initiative did not get off the ground until late September after Mr. Foley and others joined in a futile attempt to block it in the courts, a move that only served to heighten public support, according to Mr. Olson.
The unlikely coalition opposing the measure includes most of the state's Democratic and Republican officeholders, as well as others with an interest in maintaining the current political lineup, including organized labor; the Boeing aircraft company and Kaiser Aluminum, two of the state's largest private employers; as well as the National Rifle Association and Philip Morris USA, the tobacco company.
Opponents say their campaign to persuade voters that the state would lose clout in Congress if it becomes the only one to limit terms has begun to eat away at public support for the measure.
But proponents, who are confident of winning, are already beginning to add up the unexpected victories their campaign has brought.
Last month, the state's popular Democratic governor, Booth Gardner, announced that he would not seek a third term next year. He denied that the term limit movement played any part in his decision, even though passage of the measure would bar him from running again.
Then Representative Al Swift, D-Wash., a 13-year incumbent, said he would retire in 1994, the year the limits would take effect. He made the announcement, he said, to prove that his opposition to term limits has nothing to do with self-interest.
Last week, the Seattle Times surprised readers by endorsing Initiative 553. It was doing so, the paper said, because badly needed changes "will not occur without radical action by the voters. . . . Let Washington state start a new government reform movement next Tuesday."
Term limits and the Md. delegation
* Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st Elected: 1990
When he ran for office last year, he said, "Anybody who would want to do this for 20 years is nuts." He planned to stay in Congress "10 to 12 years."
Last week, he said he still plans on sticking to his self-imposed limit and added, "I may come out in favor of term limitations." But, he noted, "I've seen some people who shouldn't be here six months. . . . There are some people who are very informed who have been here 20 years."
* Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th Elected: 1986
In favoring limits, he said he sees continual movement away from "citizen legislators" to "professional politicians . . . I think that's unfortunate." He favors 12-year terms in the House and the Senate.
* Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd Elected: 1984
While she had favored term limits "more or less" in the past, last week she said she was against them. "The idea of term limits looks good until you look behind it. Who's going to run the government?" Saying that the government would be run by congressional staffs and bureaucrats, she noted: "They are not responsible to the electorate."
* Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd Elected: 1986
Campaigning in his first congressional race in August 1986, he said: "I hope to have a long career in Congress." Last week, in opposing limits, he said: "It doesn't accomplish what people are trying to do."
* Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th Elected: 1981
"I do not support efforts to limit the choices of the voters in a democracy."
* Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-6th Elected: 1978
In October 1978, she said, "If I can handle the job and serve the district, I am going to stay." Last week, she said imposing term limits "would leave the legislative branch run by staff."
* Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-7th Elected: 1986
"The House of Representatives already has term limits. They last 24 months" -- until the next election. "Limiting terms does not get rid of the rascals. You get rid of the rascals when you reform the process."
* Representative Constance A. Morella, R-8th Elected: 1986
"I think the best term limiters are the people. They have the choice to do it every two years for the House, every six years for the Senate."
* Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D Elected: 1986
"I believe we already have an effective term limitation system for elected officials: The people can vote out of office anyone they feel is no longer doing a good job."
* Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D Elected: 1976
"It's a denial of the people's authority. They have the power to limit or extend terms as they choose."