Era of term limits has now expired


IT BEGINS to look as though what we have here is a bad idea whose time is passing. Sometimes you get lucky.

A number of U.S. House members who had been elected promising to quit after three or four terms see the clock swinging around on them like death's own scythe. It perhaps will not astonish you to find that a number, upon sober reflection and in consideration of the best interests of the republic, are leaning to the proposition that the nation should not be denied an opportunity for their further ministrations.

Four of the 10 whose time is up next year are waffling.

Just as well. The representatives are reneging on a pledge that helped to elect them in the first place; indeed, that made the difference in boosting some into office. Even so, let's, as it were, eschew cynicism and assume their change of heart is genuine, as much a surprise to them as to their constituents, and is grounded in the wisdom of experience.

Retiring lawmakers

It is no bad thing if a number of so-called, self-limited members have come to understand just why that was a boneheaded idea and are now willing to take their case to the electorate. If most voters are not persuaded, then the incumbents will be retired anyway, instead of retiring -- which is why, all along, terms limits have been unnecessary.

The term-limit fad blazed in the early and mid-'90s. Most of the candidates who took the pledge did so in '92 and '94, and in the first heat of the issue, 18 states adopted term limits for their legislatures. A few still are straggling in. Alaska did last year. Mississippi and Kansas residents will vote on the idea next year.

The hiss you hear, however, is the steam going out of this issue. Large majorities, if polled, still like the idea, but mainly on a since-you-asked basis. They aren't taking to the streets. Indeed, the pioneer reneger, Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican, saying he had learned how important seniority is, was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote last year.

And it takes a constitutional amendment to term-limit Congress, so forget that. In the key 1995 House votes, the GOP leadership brought several proposals to the floor, assuring none would get a majority but letting every pro-limit member vote for one as a totem of his or her earnest. Now, that was cynicism.

Incumbent edge

There is a good amount of churn in Congress over any 10-year period and the 1992 Republican boom showed there can be a lot even on one cycle. Still, dead wood does pile up and incumbents have too much of a running start.

A properly concerned public, rather than giving away its options in favor of mechanical turnover, would demand campaign funding reform that could give challengers a better shot.

Term-limit enthusiasts like to speak of "citizen legislators" as against "professional politicians." Experience isn't everything, but how often would you drive your sputtering car past the garage with the "Licensed mechanic on duty" sign for the one with a sign saying "Guy here thinks maybe he can fix your car"?

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers. He is based in Atlanta. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 3/07/99

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