Bush to propose an amendment limiting terms for Congress

December 12, 1990|By Stephen E. Nordlinger | Stephen E. Nordlinger,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As a leading goal in his forthcoming legislative agenda, President Bush intends to push next year for a constitutional amendment to limit the length of service of members of Congress, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said yesterday.

Mr. Sununu, in a speech at the National Press Club that reviewed the administration's legislative outlook, said, "There ought to be a change in some of the fundamental ways we govern ourselves."

Mr. Bush will press for a term limitation amendment "that deals with the problems associated with perpetuating the public life of those who are elected," Mr. Sununu said.

"The reality that incumbency breeds a very different attitude is now sensed by the public, and if we look at what was intended as a structure by those who founded this country, you'll see we've moved a great distance from it."

Other than this initiative, Mr. Sununu said, the president will confine his legislative agenda mainly to reviving past proposals rejected or ignored by Congress, including a cut in the capital gains tax and tax incentives to encourage saving.

Vice President Dan Quayle, in numerous speeches, has urged a limit on congressional terms, and President Bush said at a recent news conference that in principle he supported the idea, which was endorsed by the 1988 Republican platform.

pTC But Mr. Sununu's remarks represented the first time that a top White House official has said that Mr. Bush intends to seek this constitutional change.

There are now no limits on the number of terms members can serve in Congress.

Members of Congress are not generally expected to embrace limitationof terms: Democrats, who control both the House and Senate, would especially be thought to resist a proposal that could jeopardize their dominance of Congress, and although the Republican Party supports the amendment, individual GOP members would also have reservations because their own seats could be at risk.

The Democrats have controlled the House since 1955 and the Senate from 1955 to 1981 and again since 1987.

Only one Senate incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minn., lost in last month's election, and 96 percent of the House incumbents who sought re-election won despite the widespread anger expressed by voters toward Congress following the long delays in adopting a compromise deficit-reduction package.

The results of last month's election indicated that it may take many years for the Republicans to have even a chance of capturing House control. This outlook may have given special urgency to the White House plan to seek a limit on terms.

Mr. Sununu did not spell out the term limitation to be sought by the president, but Republicans generally want to limit the term to 12 consecutive years in the Senate and House or the equivalent of two Senate terms and six two-year House terms.

The idea of limiting terms is gaining ground in the public. Voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma have approved ballot measures to limit terms of state legislators.

But a number of political experts have cited risks in limiting congressional terms.

H. Eric Schockman, a University of California political scientist, said the limit would deprive Congress of the "most knowledgeable, experienced" lawmakers, giving even more power to unelected congressional staffs.

In addition, the authorities warn that a term limit would give more power to special interests as lawmakers began to worry about future employment near the end of their congressional careers.

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