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Term limits: where will the steamroller stop?

Seattle--The nation's eyes will be on Washington state this Tuesday (Nov. 5) as it votes on the toughest term-limit measure yet devised.

Initiative 553 is merciless. It covers every legislator, federal and state, and doesn't "grandfather" a single one. If it's passed and survives the predictable legal challenges, House Speaker Tom Foley and a majority of the congressional delegation would have to step down by 1994.

Washington's vaunted congressional seniority wouldn't be the only victim. A big portion of the state legislature would have to leave office by the 1994 or 1996.

A clearly annoyed Gov. Booth Gardner, who would be barred from seeking a third term in 1992, has announced he isn't running anyway and predicted Initiative 553, even if passed, will be found unconstitutional.

No matter, Initiative 553 is given a good chance to pass. The debate about term limits is fast turning into an avalanche of support for the proponents. Public-opinion polls show 70 percent approval across the country. Term-limit measures are expected to be on ballots next year in at least 12 states, maybe as many as 24.

Several national groups, bankrolled by conservatives, are now pushing term limits, trying to coordinate what is essentially a grassroots movement. Not all supporters are from the right. The active backers of Washington's 553, for example, include liberals upset with incumbent Democratic congressmen who vote for big defense spending.

On Oct. 1, Let the People Decide, the only national organization formed just to fight term limits, quietly folded its Washington office. Its board of directors had included such well-known ex-officeholders as House speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) and Rep. Melvin Laird (R-Wis.), who was also defense secretary.

The "anti" fight is carried on by organized labor, by Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown, and of course entrenched incumbents coast to coast. In Washington state, every camp from Common Cause to the Sierra Club to organizations claiming to represent realtors, public employees and senior citizens are officially against term limits.

But the political steamroller threatens to push right over them.

In bellwether California, the supreme court just ratified, 6-1, the constitutionality of Proposition 140m the 1990 initiative that limits the state's 80 assemblymen to six years and 40 senators to eight years.

You have to guess the California judges had an ear to public opinion when they announced Proposition 140 a valid protection "against an entrenched dynastic legislative bureaucracy."

"Term limits are a primal scream for change in the political system," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told my New Jersey coleague, Robert Guskind. The voter attitude, Mellman says, is: "I'm mad as hell and this is the only way I have to vent that frustration."

The public, say pollster, are angry at public officials for leading what seem to them charmed existences in Washington--an image bolstered by Congress' check-bouncing scandal and $300,000 in unpaid bills at the congressional restaurant. Public revulsion at the Senate's handling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings may have stoked the fires more.

As for state legislatures, the churn up resentment as they increasingly resemble Congress' gridlock and special-interest control.

Anti-politician fever may be driven too by the sheer frustration people feel as their real incomes stagnate, their standard of living declines. Why, they reason, should the politicians be immune?

The sadness, of course, is what term limits will not accomplish. They won't take the torrent of special-interest money out of politics. They won't promote political competition in the redistricting process. They won't get rid of the vacuous, talking-head, 15- and 30-second campaign TV sound-bites.

Terms limits won't help draft better laws or write balanced budgets. They're not likely to prop up our decaying political parties. They're unlikely to make politicians think more sensitively about bringing poorer and ill-educated Americans into the national mainstream.

Even so, I notice many civically informed people warming up to the term-limit idea more and more. Because without limits, no one sees how to restore full competition to the system. In 1990, there were 81 members of Congress who had no major party opposition at all. Newsday estimated that 90 percent of the nation's state legislators in 1990 had a free ride or just token opposition.

Maybe only the bludgeon of term limits will roust enough of our "incumbents for life" to give campaign-reform legislation a serious chance.

You can also argue taht term limits, however rough an instrument they seem, aren't all that new or different in American life. They already apply to the presidency and 31 governorships. University of California political scientist Mark Pettraca has traced them back to Aristotle, the Athenian and Roman republics, and the renaissance states of Venice and Florence.

Called "rotation in office," term limits reappeared in our Articles of Confederation, were warmly endorsed by Thomas Jefferson, championed by our early anti-federalists and the Jacksonians. Alexander Hamilton helped keep term limits out of the Constitution. Political leaders of the more professionalized government of the 20th century disdained them.

But now, the debate is wide open. So let's ask: if baldly political agendas are being used to pick Supreme Court justices, how about term limits for them too?
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Author:Peirce, Neal R.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Nov 4, 1991
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