WASHINGTON -- "Don't quote me," a state legislator from New York says, "but that Oklahoma thing hit like a bombshell. They want to throw the rascals out, and I'm one of the rascals."
The Oklahoma "thing" is, of course, the 2-1 vote there the other day to put a 12-year limit on the length of time state legislators can serve. The notion of imposing term limitations on officeholders, always an attractive one to voters suspicious of politicians, has become a far more realistic possibility now that the first state has actually done it.
Indeed, the betting in the political community today is that if similar measures are passed in California and Colorado Nov. 6, there is likely to be a rush to accomplish the same thing all across the nation -- for members of Congress as well as state legislators. The pressure from the public seems to be remarkably bipartisan.
Opinion polls, election returns and voter-turnout statistics document widespread disenchantment with the political system -- and widespread resentment of a political establishment that seems implacably beyond influence.
The politicians themselves have contributed greatly to this frustration. On the one hand, they argue that the voters always have the option of replacing them; on the other, they use their incumbency to make that far more difficult than the civics textbooks would suggest.
In California, the response of that ultimate symbol of entrenched power, Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown, has been to tap his usual sources for money to try to defeat the limitation initiative.
But, wrongheaded as they may be in their approach, the politicians do have some valid arguments against the limits that go beyond saving their own skins. One clearly is the danger that limitations would cost the government some of its most valuable and expert officeholders. There are dozens of members of the Congress who could be sent packing without any loss to the republic. But the expertise of a Sen. Sam Nunn on military questions or a Rep. Henry Waxman on health issues could not be acquired in six years.
Another valid complaint is that limiting the opportunity for legislators to build expertise inevitably will give more influence to a cadre of permanent staff members who never have to face the voters. Some staff members here already have more influence than they should because their elected bosses are too lazy or undisciplined to develop their own expertise. For short-timers, the temptation to rely on staff would be even greater.
But the most critical flaw in term limitations may be the danger that those who would be elected might be even less responsive to the electorate than those who are serving today. Presidents and the many governors who already operate under term limits often talk about the things they can accomplish in their second terms when the political pressure is not so intense. But in some cases that is another way of saying there are things they can do that their constituents simply wouldn't accept.
Proponents of term limitation have visions of "citizen politicians" such as those the Founding Fathers intended. They would be men and women who would interupt their careers for six or eight years of public service, then return to private life. On paper, it is an obviously appealing notion.
In practice, however, it could work out quite differently. The people who would find it easiest to devote a few years to public service might very well be an elite of the affluent who would be able to serve in Albany or Lansing or Washington with the assurance they could resume their private lives without paying a heavy price in terms of their careers.
Would they be preferable to career professional politicians? Not necessarily.
If the goal is a more responsive government, the incumbents who feel so threatened might achieve that purpose with changes less drastic than terms limitations. Congress, for example, could approve a true reform of the campaign-financing system so that challengers could achieve a level playing field -- and so the voters might feel it was possible to throw the rascals out on a more selective basis.
But self-preservation is always the strongest motivation in politics. So it is far more realistic to believe the incumbents will continue on the kind of self-protective course that fed the rebellion in Oklahoma -- until the voters take the matter out of their hands.