Bounced checks: fuel on the bonfire of public indignation On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 14, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

Washington -- WHEN THE story broke recently about members of the House of Representatives having overdrawn checks covered by the House bank without penalty, Speaker Tom Foley was chagrined. And as one of the check-bouncers, there was more reason for his concern than his pride in the institution he heads. The disclosure that congressional checks were being bounced with impunity was only the latest fuel for a bonfire of public indignation toward elected officials that is manifesting itself across the country, including in Foley's home state of Washington, to clamp a limit on how long they can serve.

Voters in three states passed such limitations last year -- California and Oklahoma acting against state officials and Colorado against state officeholders and its delegation to Congress. Washington state voters will consider a more sweeping term limitation initiative next month, and eight other states are expected to vote on limits in 1992.

Voter ire has been raised not only by the check-bouncing, but also by members of Congress voting themselves healthy pay raises while failing to balance the federal budget, by House members running up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid meal tabs at their private House restaurant and by the Senate's Keystone Kops handling of the Clarence Thomas confirmation.

The anti-incumbency revolt that was predicted for the 1990 elections but did not materialize in a substantial way may finally erupt, and Foley and other veteran members of the Washington state congressional delegation could be prime victims, because of unusually stiff terms in the initiative going before the state's voters in November.

MA Like the Colorado limit passed last year, members of Congress

from Washington state would be held to a total of 12 years in office, effective in 1994. But unlike Colorado, where the clock on service started only with the passage of the limiting legislation, the Washington initiative would declare that members of the state's congressional delegation would be limited to 12 years flat. Foley, first elected in 1964, will have 30 years in the House by 1994, assuming he is re-elected next year, and thus would be ineligible to run again when the limit kicks in.

Two other veteran Washington state Democrats, Al Swift and Norm Dicks, also would be ineligible for re-election, and all five Democratic members of the delegation have been quietly trying to raise money to oppose the initiative, on grounds that the U.S. Constitution, setting out how members of Congress are elected, cannot be changed by state initiative. The same issue is now in the courts in Colorado. Meanwhile, a group here is organizing for a constitutional amendment that would affect all House and Senate members.

Considering the public climate, campaigning actively against term limitation is rough sledding now. The argument that voters will be throwing out years of experience and clout by sending Tom Foley and others to the showers is being countered by a throw-the-rascals-out pitch in favor of the notion of "citizen legislators" who would serve a specified time and then go back to private life, rather than making a career out of public office.

The initiative is causing some other Washington state politicians to think about switching jobs. Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner, who would be barred from seeking a third term if the initiative passes, might challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Brock Adams, planning to seek a second term, next year.

The potential of the term-limitation issue has not been lost, either, on at least one prospective Democratic presidential candidate, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who recently endorsed the concept pertaining to members of Congress. At a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Los Angeles, Brown railed against congressional pay raises and special-interest political action committees raising and spending large amounts of money to elect candidates they will then have in their pockets.

These are sentiments that are being heard increasingly across the land, and Congress' latest hi-jinks on everything from bounced checks to botched confirmation hearings are fanning support for them, to the potential detriment of veteran legislators like Tom Foley. For this reason, the vote next month on term limitations in Washington state will be watched with particular interest by officeholders everywhere who may have to start

thinking of other career interests.

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