A Bad Idea to Deal with a Bad System


January 22, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Any time you get Dan Quayle, Ralph Nader, the National Taxpayers Union and a bunch of Common Cause chapters on the same side, you know there's a loose cannon on the deck.

The push for term limits is just that. What seemed a fringe issue in the spring became mainstream politics by autumn. Term limits won strong voter approval in Colorado, Oklahoma and California.

The latest polls find close to three-quarters of Americans in favor of slapping limits on the terms of members of Congress, their own state legislators, or both.

Predictably, the movement is spreading, state to state, like a proverbial prairie wildfire. The action is not in the legislatures themselves. Not many politicians are anxious to vote themselves out of a job. Instead, look for major movement in the states toward using the process of initiative to place the issue directly before the voters.

Backers of California's successful term-limit drive held a December conference that was attended by organizers from some two dozen states. Their prediction: Up to 20 states will have term-limit measures on their ballots by 1992. Among states where the strongest pushes seem likely are Washington, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Arizona and Florida.

And what's good enough for state legislatures, say supporters, is an even better idea for Congress -- the institution where permanent incumbency and lifetime tenure seem most entrenched, producing the most corrosive results.

You can guess for yourself whether it's the ills of incumbency or partisan politics that's motivating President Bush to rush to the front of the term-limit band. But there he is, backing a constitutional amendment to send his Capitol Hill adversaries packing after two Senate or six House terms.

This amendment (as was the flag-burning amendment Mr. Bush also endorsed) is as likely to prove a congressional dud as Ronald Reagan's persistent call for a line-item veto. But term limits may provide a handy campaign issue with which to bludgeon the Democrats, who since 1954 have held the House continuously and the Senate with rare interruptions.

Congressional coolness notwithstanding, limits on Senate and House terms may find a life in another arena -- the states. Last November's Colorado initiative, while slapping an eight-year limit state legislators, also limited the state's U.S. senators and representatives to 12 years in office.

California, home to a mega-delegation with more than 10 percent of all seats in the U.S. House, may be next. Retiring Los Angeles Supervisor Peter Schabarum, who wrote the successful term-limiting Proposition 140 approved by Golden State voters last fall, is prepared. Someone ''most assuredly'' will put a term limit for members of Congress in the California 1992 ballot, he says. Mr. Schabarum's considering leading the fight himself.

So far, no one really knows if it's constitutional for a state to limit federal congressional terms. Nor is it clear whether state legislative term limits will pass constitutional muster. A case has been filed in Kansas City, Mo., by black and Hispanic council members about to lose their seats because of a local term-limit measure passed last fall. They're claiming racial discrimination. That's not a convincing argument since the same voters could pick other minorities.

But a court might take seriously the argument that any electoral district should be entitled to keep any representative it likes in office: that it's unconstitutional for a city or state to deprive it of that right. Thirty states have some limits on statewide officeholders, but those limits are imposed by the same statewide electorate.

Constitutional niceties, however, aren't on the minds of voters eager to impose term limits now.

A reasonable person could ask what could have been on the minds of California voters last November, when on the same day, the same voting booths, they voted for term limits and then turned around and re-elected 87 the 92 state legislators seeking one more term.

Like a tax revolt, term limits are a surrender, a mindless automatic device for handling problems of self-government. Too tough to figure out how much money the government should spend on education? Slap on a tax lid. Too uninterested to check on the activities of individual legislators? Go for term limits.

What voters sense is that today's electoral system has veered out of control. A respectable (and nonpartisan) argument can be made for term limits. After all, they'll clean out some deadwood, open up elective office to more people.

But there's a much deeper problem: It's the stranglehold that special-interest groups have gained on campaign finance. It's the obscene cost of modern campaigns. And the degrading of public office when what consumes an incumbent is plotting fund-raisers to extend his or her incumbency.

Here's a question you ought to pose to any politician, any group demanding term limits:

Are you equally fervid for stiff limits on special-interest-group donations to campaigns? Will you back whatever it takes -- even public financing, if we have to -- to get a control on the runaway costs of today's campaigns? If the answer is ''no,'' then look for a hidden political agenda.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column about state and local government.

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