WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As the two candidates pursue each other over hedge and ditch, remember this: The presidential election is only the 15th most important contest this November. More potentially productive of significant and lasting change are the 14 state initiatives by which voters can impose term limits on their states' members of the U.S. House and Senate.
Because never before has one subject been simultaneously on so many ballots, the Wall Street Journal says this will be the closest America has come to a national referendum. The states (including some heavyweights -- California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio) have 150 congressmen and about a third of the nation's population.
Although polls show that sizable majorities (in all regions and both parties) favor term limits, Congress will not even allow a floor vote on a constitutional amendment setting limits.
Opponents of term limits hope to get the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional all state-imposed term limits on Congress. Their position is not frivolous but is answered by Neil Gorsuch and Michael Guzman, two recent Harvard Law graduates, in an essay published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.
The Constitution's "qualifications" clauses stipulate that House and Senate members must be 25 and 30 years old respectively, must have been citizens for seven and nine years respectively, and must be inhabitants of the states from which they are elected. Another clause assigns to states the right to regulate "the times, places and manner" of holding elections, subject to congressional override.
Opponents of term limits say limits impose a fourth "qualification" -- a candidate cannot be a long-term incumbent. The Supreme Court has held that supplementing the three enumerated qualifications (age, citizenship, inhabitancy) would require a constitutional amendment. However, Messrs. Gorsuch and Guzman argue that term limits are better understood as regulations affecting the "manner" of elections by enhancing the competitive nature of the process. The Supreme Court has, for example, upheld as a "manner" regulation a state requirement that candidates have party affiliation.
This is an unsettled area of the law. But proponents of term limits are not obliged to assume that there someday will be a Supreme Court judgment adverse to their position. Furthermore, given the scarlet fact that Congress will allow no vote on a term-limitation amendment, state votes in favor of term limits -- the only recourse the public has -- serve to underscore Congress' extremism in defense of careerism.
Bill Clinton favors "change" but opposes term limits not only because he is the prototypical political careerist but also because term limits promise radical change abhorrent to all the interest groups to which he is beholden. Term limits, ferociously fought by lobbyists everywhere, would disrupt the relationships lobbyists have with tamed, wired, rented legislative careerists whose campaigns the interest groups finance.
But term limits are a prerequisite for what President Clinton would want -- a nation more trusting of the political class and hence more accepting of government activism, including taxation.
Today's strongest political passion is taxaphobia. It reflects the electorate's judgment that the political class as currently constituted cannot be trusted to exercise sensible discretion over revenues. That judgment is reasonable. Legislative careerists of both parties love the deficit equally. It is a huge transfer payment, transferring wealth from the future to the present, enabling the political class to charge just 75 cents for a dollar's worth of government.
This is one reason why it does not matter much which candidate winds up atop the executive branch. Until term limitation changes the motives for entering Congress, and the incentive for behaving responsibly while there, the deficit will remain untamed and government paralysis will remain unchanged. Hence Congress will pursue social change by mandating private-sector provision of benefits that raise the cost of, and thus decrease the frequency of, job creation.
Americans who want serious change should understand the futility of changing presidents while leaving in place a Congress free to continue using modern government, with its myriad subsidizing and regulating activities, to serve careerism.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.