Out with incumbents -- but not ours

William Schneider

October 05, 1990|By William Schneider

WHAT WE'RE seeing this year is a revolt against incumbency -- but not necessarily a revolt against incumbents.

Oklahoma voters have already passed a law limiting state legislators to 12 years in office. Voters in California and Colorado are likely to pass similar measures in November. Vice President Dan Quayle is actively stirring up sentiment in favor of a constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms.

At the same time, only one of 405 members of Congress seeking re-election this year was defeated in a primary. And he had been convicted of having sex with a teen-ager. No senator or governor has lost a primary. Half of the senators running for re-election this year face little or no meaningful opposition. Only about 50 House races out of 435 can be considered seriously competitive.

The polls reveal a real and growing anger at politicians as a class. But that anger doesn't necessarily spill over to individual candidates.

According to a poll by CBS News-New York Times, voters disapprove, 46-38 percent, of the way Congress is handling its job. By almost 3-1, however, they approve of the way "the representative in Congress from your district" is handling his or her job. In the same poll, 42 percent say they believe that half or more of the members of Congress are financially corrupt. But only 15 percent believe their own member is corrupt.

It's an old story. People hate Congress but like their own member. But this year, the voters have found a way to act on those feelings. They don't have to vote against someone they like. They can vote for term limits.

It's an odd remedy. After all, the voters have always had the ability to reject incumbents. What they are doing now is giving up the ability to keep them.

The remedy is perfectly expressive of the voters' mood. They don't want to fire their legislators; it's not their fault. They want to fire the legislature; that's where the problem is. The message of term limits is, "Stop us before we reelect again."

Why now? For one thing, people are nervous about the economy. When times are bad, voters are always inclined to vote the ins out and the outs in. But the anger this year seems to be more pervasive than that: People are losing confidence in both the ins and the outs.

To some extent, voters are responding to the arrogance and corruption they perceive among politicians. It probably started with last year's congressional pay raise, which voters have not forgotten: 70 percent say they would be less likely to vote for a member who supported a pay raise.

The savings and loan scandal has done its part to convince voters that most politicians are on the take. Forty-five percent say they would be less likely to vote for someone who accepted campaign contributions from an S&L, as if it were prima facie evidence of influence-peddling.

Most important, however, is the perception that politicians are not doing their job.

There are two major reasons why politicians can't do their job. One is that there are no resources. The anti-tax, anti-government frenzy of the past 12 years has starved the public sector of funds. Now the public's mood has turned. People seem to be looking to government again to solve problems such as drug abuse, decline in education and environmental threats. But they resolutely refuse to pay for more government. Politicians are stuck with increasing demands and diminishing public resources. Whose fault is that?

The other reason is the political stalemate that prevails in Washington and many state capitals. Bush knows that he cannot get what he wants out of a Democratic Congress. So he has to govern by veto, which he has used 13 times in 20 months. Congress knows that it cannot override a presidential veto. So there is a lot of irresponsible posturing on both sides. People elect legislatures and executives from different political parties and then get angry when they don't get along. Whose fault is that?

California is where the tax revolt began in 1978. It is also where the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature have been in stalemate for eight years. This year, corruption scandals have shaken the legislature. And the budget process ended up in total deadlock.

In a Los Angeles Times poll, California voters disapprove by 2-1 of the way their legislature is handling its job. They support two initiatives that would limit legislators' terms in office. They are striking out in a blind rage against what they perceive as a corrupt and unproductive political class. And yet, when asked whether their own state legislator deserves re-election, they say yes, by almost 3-1.

Term limits are likely to have all kinds of unintended consequences. One is the loss of experience and expertise. Perhaps legislators will take riskier stands. But do the voters really want politicians who are less accountable to public opinion? Term limits are also supposed to curb the influence of special interests. But the legislatures will be filled with lame ducks, and lame ducks spend a lot of time feathering their nests.

The real problem is uncompetitive elections. Incumbents have too many advantages. The answer is not term limits, but campaign reforms aimed at creating a more level playing field for incumbents and challengers.

But how do you get incumbents to vote for campaign reforms? The answer is, threaten them. And what's the best weapon to threaten them with? Why, term limits, of course.

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