Congressional Term Limits -- an Idea Whose Time Has Gone


Washington. -- As many as 15 states will be voting in November on a bad idea. This is the idea of limiting the consecutive terms of members of Congress. The regrettable prospect is that most of these referendums will pass.

The drive for term limitation draws its energy from an idealistic principle, a doubtful assumption and a long-festering animosity.

The principle dates from the time of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, or perhaps from the time of Cincinnatus. It rests upon the image of the citizen lawmaker who lays aside his plow and devotes his energy for a brief time to public affairs.

Somehow it is assumed -- there can be no proof -- that temporary politicians will be "better" than career politicians; they will be better able to fend off the special interests; they will have no interest in building political empires they cannot be around to enjoy.

That the people are angry at "Congress" is clear. I put "Congress" in quotes for a reason. One poll after another finds that voters are satisfied with their own member of the House. It's those other guys who are fouling things up.

The anger is directed at an institution, and the theory is that the institution would benefit from more rapid turnover of its members.

The arguments are persuasive. They are not convincing.

When this movement sprang up four years ago, the idea most talked about was to limit members of both House and Senate to 12 consecutive years in Congress. In five states (Arkansas, California, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming), pending initiatives propose only six years.

Let us suppose that a six-year limit had been imposed in 1986 upon members of the House. This would mean that the House that convenes in January 1993 would include no member with more than four years' service. The six-year men and women would have been turned out.

Would this be a good thing? I gravely doubt it. The system would have rid the Congress of a few tyrants and obstructionists. It also would have rid us of institutional memory -- the knowledge that accumulates slowly, like rings on a tree, of what works and what doesn't work.

My thought is that term limitation, by relying upon temporary legislators, would surrender the effective control of public affairs to three permanent classes. I mean the lobbyists, the bureaucracy and the committee staffs.

These people work full-time. They acquire real expertise in their fields. Given the complexity of today's legislation, they are indispensable to the functioning of Congress.

Cincinnatus left his fields 2,500 years ago. Things have changed.

Consider, if you will, Senate Bill 2217. It comprises the president's plan "to create jobs, promote economic growth, assist families and promote health, education, savings and home ownership." Sens. Bob Dole and Pete Domenici introduced S.2217 on Feb. 7. The bill runs to 1,003 pages.

I open the bill at random. Here is a section to amend Section 7 of the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956. It deals particularly with Sections 4(e)(16)(B) and 5(c)(3) and 5(e)(4). Here is a section dealing with student loans. "If the amount determined under subparagraph (A) is a negative amount . . . " I flip to page 742. It has to do with the Mineral Leasing Act.

Who is to explain all this to a Cincinnatus from South Carolina who two months ago was selling hardware? A new member from Ohio who was writing wills?

The newcomer must of necessity rely upon lobbyists, bureaucrats and committee staff. Members have told me that it takes up to four years to learn when one is being snookered. After six years, a senator or representative may hope to accomplish something constructive.

The cry is for new blood and new brooms. Proponents would abolish the seniority system and elect committee chairmen on merit alone. Hokum! No more certain way could be devised to promote internal factions, jealousies and thwarted ambitions.

Seniority has its drawbacks, but the system imposes order, and most of the time it works pretty well.

Yes, incumbent members now have a great advantage in seeking re-election, but their re-election is not assured. Fifteen members of the House already have lost in primaries. January will see at least 130 new faces in the House, where the average tenure is about 10 years.

The conservatives' maxim applies: If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Where's the necessity?

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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