The Time of the Short-Timer

Ernest B. Furgurson

October 31, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON — Washington.

LAST WEEKEND, Mr. Bush asserted that limiting the terms of elected officials was an idea whose time has come. Interestingly, it came to him 10 days before the 1990 elections, in which his own political smart-alecking has put his party in danger.

It occurred to him shortly after the GOP gubernatorial candidate in California, Pete Wilson, spoke out for the term-limitation proposition on the ballot there, and promptly jumped in the polls. You could almost hear our president thinking, if that's what the polls say, then I'd better get on board.

Some Californians scoff at Senator Wilson's endorsing term limits, since he has been a state legislator, San Diego mayor or U.S. senator for the past two dozen years. But Mr. Bush sees no contradiction, since he himself is running an anti-Washington, anti-politician campaign after being in one political office or another exactly as long.

That these politicians are faking indignation about politicians may be laughable, but the vehicle of their hypocrisy this fall is serious to lots of non-politicians out there. Some outraged citizen down South is spending his life savings to run ads saying throw the rascals out, all of them.

The California proposition would affect only state officeholders. One in Colorado would limit terms for Congress, too. If the voters approve it, there will surely be a court test of whether a state can thus define terms already dealt with in the Constitution.

Most of this popular anger is directed at Congress, some of it churned by right-wing radio talk-show hosts. Since there are more Democrats than Republicans in Congress, the concept suits the Republicans fine -- except, of course, for those who happen to be in Congress themselves. A precious few of those have said they would be glad to sacrifice their careers for this noble cause if it profited their party.

But here and there, a historian or a politician, someone with more than a fourth-grade education and a memory that goes back more than a decade, has stopped to consider what a six-year limit would mean to the country's future. The best guide is what it would have meant in the past.

Suppose Sam Rayburn had gone home to Bonham, Texas, in 1918 instead of serving 48 years and eight months -- 17 years as speaker. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman would have had a much harder time getting through their New Deal and Fair Deal legislation.

Suppose Hubert Humphrey had been sent home to Minneapolis: would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have made it without his efforts? Suppose Bill Fulbright had had to go back to Fayetteville, Arkansas: would the anti-Vietnam war movement have died without his leadership?

But of course those are Democrats, and not everyone agitating for term limits is necessarily an admirer of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, civil rights or even peace, for that matter. To name only distinguished senior Democrats is to cheer them on. Surely no one arguing with them would dare mention Tip O'Neill, for example, or that hobgoblin of the right, Ted Kennedy.

What, then, about heroes of the right? What about Bob Taft, who was ''Mr. Republican'' for a good 15 years? Would the republic have been better off if he had been sent home to Cincinnati in 1944? What about Barry Goldwater, who came to Washington in 1952 and ran for president from the Senate 12 years later? What about Jesse Helms, who has been in the Senate 18 years and is now struggling to stay for another six?

What, indeed, about Newt Gingrich, who is much more responsible than any five Democrats for George Bush's appearance of ineptitude this fall and therefore his slump in the polls? Mr. Gingrich came to the House 12 years ago, so by the six-year standard he has long overstayed his welcome.

A congressional term limit would cut both ways, hit Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, the just and unjust -- and do nothing to cure the provincialism and venality of the legislature. Novice lawmakers would still have to contend with expert lobbyists and presidents who insist that four minus two equals five.

The trouble in Congress began with destruction of the seniority system in the name of reform, and continued with the rise of the political-action committees that finance campaigns. Since the mid-Seventies, there has been less party discipline on both sides and more looking out for No. 1, with an eye on the next election.

As a group, junior members fearful of becoming short-timers are less concerned than secure veterans about their party and about the national interest. They were elected by the same voters who got suckered into what Mr. Bush recognized as ''voodoo economics,'' back before he became the head witch doctor.

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