WASHINGTON. — RESEARCHERS at the Library of Congress will be staying up late this week trying to assure legislators that Article 1, Section 5, Paragraph 1 of the U.S. Constitution means what it seems to say.
A few months ago it didn't occur to legislators that the term-limit petitions being circulated across the country were anything more than just another kooky idea out of the eucalyptus woodwork in California.
They laughed. Then they read the polls. Then, too late, they started making campaign commercials in favor of stability and tradition. Now they are not only searching the Constitution: The more pessimistic among them are dropping their names with executive headhunters.
When the votes rolled in Tuesday evening, professional politicians across America realized that within a couple of years, they may be on the job market -- not just as individuals, which is the theoretical risk incumbents run at every election, but as an entire class.
In every political cycle, one party or the other runs a throw-the-rascals-out campaign. But incumbents, especially those in Congress, have created such a challenge-proof financing advantage that even this fall's angry electorate hardly disturbed the lineup at the Capitol. The response is a growing effort to throw them all out, rascals or not.
Californians had a ballot choice Tuesday between two propositions that would limit the terms of state office holders; they chose the stricter one. Oklahoma had supported such an initiative earlier this fall. Kansas City voters approved a limit on city council terms. But what grabbed attention in Washington was the Colorado ballot, aimed at holding the tenure of state officials to eight years -- and that of U.S. senators and congressmen to 12!
Whether a state has the power thus to limit federal office holders is suddenly the question of the day, sure to go the highest court before it is settled. Until the court rules, worried lawmakers are taking a closer look than ever at the pertinent constitutional clause:
''Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members . . . ''
That seems clear enough to me, but not to term-limit advocates, who are suddenly energized by Tuesday's results. While that wording says each House shall judge elections, returns and qualifications, it doesn't mention terms. Elsewhere in Article 1, the Constitution says the House shall be chosen ''every second year,'' and senators ''for six years,'' but does not specify how many times.
Those studying the legislative history of those commissions and omissions will note that originally, U.S. senators were chosen not by popular election but by the state legislatures. That was
changed by the 17th Amendment, in 1913. Furthermore, the Constitution still empowers governors to make temporary appointments to fill vacancies in either house.
Thus, term-limit lawyers will argue, the states always have had some role in deciding who will represent them (but they have never set the rules by which those lawmakers serve). Eventually, the debate will get to the 10th Amendment, which says ''The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.''
While this movement clearly has wide grass-roots support, everybody knows its most interested cheerleaders are Republicans, for the simple reason that most of the in crowd are Democrats. After reading the opinion polls, career politician George Bush said term limits were an idea whose time has come, and Dan Quayle preached it around the country.
Because there is no likelihood that Congress itself would pass such a law, or approve such a constitutional amendment if the court says one is necessary, the action is going to be in the states. When legislators balk at committing hara-kiri this way, there will be a wave of initiatives like those passed this fall.
Promoters of the movement will meet here to plan strategy next month, and say they hope to get the issue on the ballot in at least 15 states in 1992. Win or lose, the outlook is prosperity for consultants, pollsters and others in the election industry.
The first prospects they should hit up for contributions are Washington's threadbare real-estate agents, who would think they'd gone to heaven if the law assured a steady turnover of lawmakers and their hangers-on.