WASHINGTON — OKLAHOMA voters last Tuesday blew the whistle on their career state legislators, voting by better than 2-to-1 for an initiative to limit state senators or representatives to 12 years of service.
The Oklahoma vote represents a watershed in American politics: No other state now limits legislators' terms. It may be an omen of things to come. Voters in many states are now reaching for the blunt instrument of limited terms to curb the growing phenomenon of legislators for life.
In California this November, two competing-term limitations will be on the ballot. They'd limit legislators to somewhere between six and 12 years in office, and the governor and other statewide office holders to two or three terms.
Colorado voters will decide on Republican state Sen. Terry Considine's even more ambitious initiative. It would not only limit state legislators and statewide officials to eight consecutive years in office, but put a lid of 12 years on consecutive service of Colorado's U.S. senators and representatives.
Active efforts to curb terms have sprouted in Illinois, Ohio, Florida and New York. And on a parallel track, one-third of the states are actively considering a constitutional amendment limiting service in the U.S. House or Senate to 12 consecutive years.
Mr. Considine alleges that ''permanent incumbency'' -- legislators and state officials staying on for multiple terms, even decades -- is creating a kind of ''professional ruling class'' that's ever more out of touch with ordinary citizens' real concerns. A companion complaint: Legislators spend a lion's share of their time in year-round campaigning and don't work on the people's business.
There's little doubt that the powers of incumbency -- big publicly paid staffs, multiple offices, free travel allowances, broadcast facilities, campaign war chests filled by special interests, free mailings at public expense -- have made it tougher and tougher to upset incumbents. The re-election rate for members of Congress seeking new terms, around 90 percent in the first generation after World War II, soared closer toward 100 percent in the 1980s. In 1988, only seven of the 435-member U.S. House lost re-election bids.
In California, with a highly paid professionalized legislature that more and more resembles Congress, only three incumbents were unseated during the last three legislative elections. Over 270 won. The turnover rate for California's Assembly has shrunk by more than half since the early '80s.
Critics say the same trend now permeates local offices. ''Entrenched incumbency is strangling local government and the quality of life is suffering in many ways, whether it's crime or development running rampant,'' says Laura Lake, an anti-growth activist and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
''The entire system is not working well,'' Ms. Lake adds. ''The infrastructure is falling apart. We're not planning for the future. And we don't have genuinely accountable leadership.''
What's to be made of all this? Is it just sentimental yearning for the far simpler political world before complex government operations, polling and sophisticated television campaign advertising -- times when the concept of ''citizen legislator'' still made sense?
Some say so and warn that limited terms would boomerang, giving more power than ever to the ''permanent'' world of congressional and state-capital staffers, lobbyists and journalists.
But if ever an issue were ripe for broad support, this would seem to be it. Polls by Mervin Field have shown over 70 percent of Californians favoring term limits. It's ''a manifestation of the frustration the public has with what they see as a failure of government,'' Mr. Field says. Political scientist Monty Hempel of Claremont College notes: ''There is a general feeling to 'throw the rascals out.' ''
Term limitation may be a proxy for campaign-spending reform to reduce incumbents' immense money-raising advantages. California's attorney general, John Van de Kamp, has combined the issues in his California initiative, arguing that it's necessary to limit terms and to curb the overwhelming campaign influence of special interests. He says strong medicine is necessary because ''our system of government has hardened into a gridlock of caution, incumbency protection and the servicing of special interests.''
The fascinating question is whether term limits, an issue quickly communicated to and grasped by disaffected voters, will prove the magic key to break the impasse in Congress and state legislatures on basic campaign reform, and other issues citizens really care about.
Even if you respect professionalism in legislatures, there's something refreshing to the idea of a man or woman running for election to push one or two specific causes, making their contribution and returning to ''civilian life.''
But it may not happen -- not even in bellwether California. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Senate President David Roberti seem likely to raise massive funds to defeat the term-limiting initiatives which would break their power. Every special interest that normally curries the legislature for favor will be asked to kick in.
''The public can be for something instinctively and the people campaigning against it can still turn the voters around,'' warns Mr. Field. If that scenario plays out, it will be rather sad -- even if you don't believe term limits are a cure-all for our political system's defects.