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Wild pitch: George Will strikes out against term limits.

No one brings more zeal to a cause than a recent convert. George Will, once a foe of term limits, is now firmly on board the bandwagon. In his new book*, Will conjures up so many arguments for curbing congressional terms, the reader wonders how he justifies ever having been on the other side. A former professor of political philosophy, Will presents his case for term limits with the same scholarly patina that coats his journalism. There are the predictable pages detailing the Framers' original intent and the true meaning of republicanism. But that's the fancy window dressing.

The author of Men at Work, a best-selling book on baseball, Will seems to have been born again at the ballpark. As a board member of the Baltimore Orioles, he oversaw a "throw the bums out" campaign that made the 1989 Orioles major league basebali's youngest team--and the one with the smallest payroll. Yet they came within a few pitches of winning the American League East. Their predecessors, the 1988 Orioles, lost their first 21 games, a record, and went on to lose a total of 107 for the season. "They were somewhat like today's Congress--expensive and incompetent," Will recalls, and "the Orioles' management had a thought: Hey, we can lose 107 games with inexpensive rookies."

Applying the same principle to Congress could produce a winning season. But it could just as easily encourage the election of "Bob Roberts" clones-- millionaire fascist yuppies who can afford a sabbatical in Washington. Will does not match his enthusiasm for term limits with a rigorous examination of opposing arguments or with a comparison of alternative remedies (like campaign finance reform). Instead of intellectual fiber, there is loftier-than-thou prose.

Will paints an unrelievedly negative portrait of public service. The opening chapters are a reprise of recent congressional scandals, an outpouring from the Nexis database. Election to Congress is "tantamount to being dispatched to Washington on a looting raid for the enrichment of your state or district, and no other ethic need inhibit the feeding frenzy," Will writes. He blames the "dangerous careerism" of today's lawmakers for Congress' collective failure of nerve. Will captures the dynamic of Capitol Hill protectionism. And he concludes that the cure for Congress' "hyper-responsiveness" to a selfish and demanding electorate is term limits. But it is a big leap to argue that a revolving door of rookie legislators would cause Congress to spurn parochial pressures and do what's best for the country. Indeed, short-termers might be more beholden to special interests, either out of naivete or concern for their future employment.

Even the most principled senators elbow their way to the federal trough to get goodies for their constituents. Will's argument, simply, is that they would do it less if they were limited to two terms. "In six of their twelve years, they might think of something-- the national interest, perhaps--other than buying votes with the voters' money." This theory is not new. One of the arguments for reelecting George Bush is that he would be free of electoral pressure and could make tough decisions. Lame-duck behavior, however, is usually disappointing. Who can forget the emptiness of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" second term?

Will underestimates what aroused voters will do when provoked. To make his case that some congressmen are lifers, he cites Charles Hatcher, a six-term Democrat from Georgia who was among the top 22 House bank abusers named by the Ethics Committee. "But was he in trouble back home?" Will asks imperiously. "Be serious. The two things that matter most in his district are peanuts and tobacco.'' Will assumed Hatcher was safe because he chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Peanuts and Tobacco. Yet Hatcher was defeated in Georgia's July primary, one of nineteen House incumbents dumped by voters in this year's primaries. Other supposed untouchables who were dealt surprise losses after Will's deadline included Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, a 20-year veteran who headed the GOP's congressional reelection committee, and Rep. Mickey Edwards, a member of the House GOP leadership. Will touts term limits as a "surgical remedy" for congressional tenure, but voter wrath is effective and more democratic. Through a combination of defeats, retirements, and reapportionment, a third of House members will be new in January.

Much of what Will says has appeal no matter what your party and ideology. Everyone agrees that Congress is beholden to special interests and that big money drives the process. Wool subsidies granted during World War II to spur the production of uniforms continue today even though soldiers wear synthetics. A handful of legislators from wool-producing states keep the subsidies alive just as farm-state congressmen protect the honey subsidy, another wartime grant. No wonder cynicism has replaced a sense of civic responsibility among voters. All this and more has been said by lesser lights. What Will brings to the term limits argument is a measure of intellectual detachment. Unlike most of his conservative friends, Will says he is not a "scorched-earth, pillage-andbum" type who spends his weekends fuming about the evils of the Democrat Congress. "That is not my type of conservatism," he writes. "Patriotism properly understood simply is not compatible with contempt for the institutions that put American democracy on display." Early in his career, Will spent three years working as an aide to Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, where he acquired "a lasting love of the Congress." Will's tone is more sorrowful than angry. He begins his book with the cry, "Long live Congress !" shouted by American officers during the successful British siege of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1779.

George vs. George

Will's most creative argument for term limits spins off his disdain for President Bush. He calls Bush a "stammering cipher" whose ineffectual handling of domestic problems dramatizes the danger of excessive reliance on one man for leadership. Only a vigorous Congress, he argues, can fill the space opened up by a vacuous presidency. Will is less clear about how a collection of citizen legislators would actually assume national leadership. He resorts to the dubious theory that spreading power around is better than the public "putting all its eggs in one basket."

Will believes the end of the Cold War should free the country (and the media) from its obsession with the presidency. "Bush is the most narrow-gauge president in living memory, and even his narrow interest and supposed competence is iii-suited to his moment on center stage. He prepared thoroughly for most of his adult life to play the role of conductor of the West's side of the Cold War. Then he found that conception of the presidency suddenly anachronistic .... When not dealing with foreign policy--when trying to look interested in the domestic questions that are of most interest to most Americans--Bush was a blank."

Nobody is better at Bush-bashing than Will, and his soliloquy on Bush and leadership is a high point of Restoration. He ridicules the media's expectation that Bush would have something uplifting to say after the Los Angeles riots in May. "What explains this strange 'turning toward a man who, in 67 previous years of life, had never shown noticeable interest in, or the slightest aptitude for, saying helpful things about the great questions of justice that should drive discussion of domestic policy?"

The timing of this book suggests that Will wants to capitalize on the citizen anger that has made 1992 the year of protest politics. Term-limit initiatives are on the ballot in 14 states, and many challengers have made attacks on incumbents' longevity their primary theme. Perhaps because of deadline pressure, Restoration is rambling and seems to have escaped a sharp editor's eye. There are passages, for instance, that read like vaudeville for conservatives: "The Rockies may crumble, Gibralter may tumble, they're only made of clay, but federal programs are here to stay." In a section that recaps the reasons several members of Congress resigned this year, Will gets sappy lamenting the departure of Ohio Rep. Dennis Eckart. "When one of the fastest-rising stars in Congress' firmament decides he would rather not try to twinkle any more, his decision is apt to be an index of that institution's stresses." Eckart will be missed, but it's a big Milky Way out there.
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Author:Clift, Eleanor
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:1368
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