WASHINGTON. — IN THE PAST WEEK or so, ever since Oklahomans voted to limit terms in their state legislature, we have been hearing casual talk on Capitol Hill about limiting the terms of members of Congress. This is a bad good idea. The underlying principle is good, but the actual practice would be bad.
In the beginning of the republic, no one thought much about making a lifelong career of service in Congress. The idea then was to have a legislature of citizens who would serve mainly for the honor of representing their constituents. Virginia's venerable George Mason put it this way in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776:
''. . . The legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judicative; and, that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burthens of the people, they should at fixed periods be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.''
A good copy editor would have improved Mason's 18th-century sentence, but the gist of it is clear. The citizen lawmaker was to go to the capital, do his job and come back home. The First Congress of 1789 saw 63 men from the original 13 states. Ten years later, when the Sixth Congress met in 1799, only six of the 63 were still around. By 1809 not a one of them remained in the House.
In those days Congress met, on average, for only four or five months a year. The government had only five departments -- state, treasury, war, navy, justice. Over a span of 50 years, from 1789 through 1839, fewer than 12,000 bills were introduced. In the first seven months of 1990, we have seen almost 4,000 bills introduced. Things have changed, and the change is not merely of degree, but of kind.
It is the magnitude of this change -- the sheer complexity of current issues -- that prompts me to oppose the several proposals to limit terms in Congress. The most familiar proposal is to amend the Constitution so as to limit members to 12 years of consecutive service -- two six-year terms for senators, six two-year terms for members of the House.
The trouble with this line of thinking is that it takes from six to eight years to educate a representative or a senator to a point of critical usefulness. That point is reached when the member develops a certain keen intuition -- the intuition to sense when committee staffers, departmental bureaucrats or professional lobbyists are pulling a fast one on him.
If members were limited to 12 years on the Hill, we would get eight years of patient instruction and four years of useful performance. Like new shoes, members would be just about broken in when the time came for a long walk. No such limitation would apply to the other forces shaping legislation. Staffers, bureaucrats and lobbyists stay on forever. They become indispensable experts in such areas as energy, taxation, agriculture and defense. Under the proposal, their influence would become overwhelming.
The initiative that was adopted by 2-to-1 in Oklahoma would limit state legislators to not more than 12 years in office. This might work at the state level, though lawmakers in state capitals are as vulnerable as members of Congress. In any event, in deference to the principles of federalism, Oklahoma should be encouraged to experiment with the idea.
Of greater interest is a pending measure in Colorado. It would put 12-year limits by state law not only on state legislators but also on Colorado's delegation in Congress. May a state lawfully impose such limits? The argument here is that under the Constitution, each state may fix the ''manner'' of electing its U.S. senators and representatives. The argument sounds flimsy to me, but who knows? The measure might pass muster.
Here, too, the sound old doctrines of federalism should apply. The people, acting through their states, have power to rearrange the structure of government as they wish. If they want periodically to throw the bums out, all right by me -- plenty of bums survive on Capitol Hill -- but they would be throwing out the best and the brightest as well.