Throw the Bums Out!


October 29, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Seattle. -- Sherry Bockwinkel owes a debt of gratitude to the United States Congress. She is grateful for the checks they bounced. She counts every unpaid restaurant tab among her blessings. Above all, she has reason to thank the Senate Judiciary Committee for its handling of the Thomas hearings.

''I loved it!,'' exclaims the energetic woman who is every inch the political activist from the curly halo of hair on her head to the Birkenstocks on her feet. ''It was like a 72-hour ad for term limitations.''

Term limitations -- a phrase that strikes terror in the heart of every professional politician -- is what Ms. Bockwinkel is after. She is the founder and force behind Initiative 553, the ballot measure that promises to make Washington the next state after Oklahoma, Colorado and California to sign on to a dramatic nationwide movement to ''throw the bums out.''

If it passes November 5, and if it passes constitutional muster, no state pol will be able to serve more than 10 consecutive years in the Washington legislature, or more than 12 in Congress. To put it in Ms. Bockwinkel's no-minced-words way: ''We are going to clean house.''

Like many others, she came to this cause out of the frustration she felt fighting against the real political power: Incumbency and its handmaiden, money. The national approval ratings of Congress may have tumbled to the 20s, but the re-election rates are in the upper 90s.

''The three main reasons they leave office,'' says Ms. Bockwinkel of congressional incumbents, ''are death, retirement and indictment . . . in that order.'' The reasons they don't leave office, she says, with equal moderation, are ''the pay raises, the pensions and the perks.'' Term-limitation rules would do more than throw this particular batch of ''bums'' out, she believes. It would encourage newcomers, restore the principle of the citizen-legislator and get voters to participate.

She shares this conviction with some pretty strange bedfellows -- from Jerry Brown, who has just declared himself a presidential candidate against ''the Incumbent Party,'' to Dan Quayle, who has come out against ''the permanent band of professional politicians and the special interests they serve.'' The term-limit movement includes people who want more women and minorities in Congress and people who want more Republicans.

The coalition here against 553 is also one of oddfellows, some conservative power brokers and traditional good-government types, such as the League of Women Voters. The league's state president here, Margaret Colony, for example, says they too would like to ''throw the bums out,'' but selectively. ''We'd like to get rid of Ted Kennedy, not Tom Foley,'' she says. Indeed, most of the opponents talk about Representative Foley, the popular speaker of the House, as an example of the benefits of seniority and the ''clout'' that could be lost if Washington ''unilaterally disarms,'' by limiting terms before other states.

In some ways this is an odd place for this movement to take hold. Washington has had more open seats for Congress in the past 10 years than most other states. Last week, the widely liked Gov. Booth Gardner announced that he won't seek a third term. But Washington state is not immune to the diseases emanating from Washington, D.C.

Even Ms. Colony shares one thing with Ms. Bockwinkel: the public's sense of outrage and powerlessness. The league's theme is ''Take Back the System.'' But if campaign funding is the problem, Ms. Colony believes the answer is campaign-financing reform. If you want to change the faces in Congress, do it the old-fashioned way: Vote.

Frankly, I have always agreed with that. Term limits aren't automatically going to do away with the evils of money. There is no certainty that the new guys will be good guys, or that the faces will look very different. When you limit terms, you also lose experience. More to the point, it is just plain embarrassing to admit that we need regulations to do what we should be doing at the polling booth.

But in the mid-autumn of 1991, there is something even more embarrassing. The Congress. Longevity has produced more arrogance than wisdom. The politically privileged class has become more isolated than experienced. And the notion that a Permanent Congress balances the power of the presidency is hard to swallow in the current do-nothing state of politics.

Here, in the other Washington, the voters may show the rest of the country that there are limits. Limits to terms and limits to patience.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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