Time may be running out for long-term legislators Campaign for limits faces test in Wash.

November 03, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

SEATTLE — Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st, was incorrectl listed in yesterday's Sun as being in favor of limitations on terms in office. In fact, Mr. Gilchrest is undecided on the issue.

The Sun regrets the errors.

SEATTLE -- The growing movement for term limits on Congress, potentially the most profound change in American government in 75 years, is nearing a crucial turning point.

This week, Washington state voters will decide whether to force their entire congressional delegation to retire within three years, including House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, the nation's highest-ranking legislator.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Also on the line in Tuesday's election is the future of the term limit drive.

If it is approved, as many here are predicting, the Washington term limit measure probably would spark the first federal court test of a state's authority to restrict the tenure of its U.S. representatives and senators.

Even legal experts sympathetic to the movement believe that could be a tough case to make. And if term limits are overturned by the courts, "in the end, it's going to have been a long walk for a short beer," said Charles J. Cooper, a former top Justice Department official and an architect of the Reagan administration's social policy in the courts.

With a definitive court ruling many months or even years away, however, the immediate prospects for the anti-incumbent movement appear bright indeed.

Already, voters in three states -- California, Colorado and Oklahoma -- have imposed limits on state legislators, though only Colorado's affects congressional terms as well (but not until 2002). At least 10 more states could have term limit measures on the ballot next year, including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Massachusetts and Arizona.

In Washington, the first state to consider retroactive limits, incumbents who have already reached the maximum (six years for representatives, 12 years for senators) would be allowed just one more term. Term limitations would also be imposed on state officials.

Mr. Foley, who would be forced to leave Congress in 1994, calls the proposal "patently unconstitutional." He and many others believe that the only way terms can be limited is through a constitutional amendment like the one in 1951 that restricts the president to two four-year terms.

But proponents point out that the Constitution is silent on the question.

"Something cannot be unconstitutional that has never been addressed by the court," said Cleta Deatherage Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Institute.

While acknowledging that an adverse ruling would be a serious setback for the movement, she and other supporters believe that Congress may eventually be forced to limit itself, regardless of the outcome in the courts. The precedent: popular election of U.S. senators, the last great procedural change in government, in 1916, when state legislatures relinquished their right to elect senators.

"It's hard for some people to identify with the strength of the

public sentiment on this issue," said Mrs. Mitchell, a former Democratic state legislator in Oklahoma.

Until recently, the term limit drive was dismissed as little more than a conservative Republican scheme to achieve through "undemocratic" means what couldn't be done at the ballot box -- oust Democratic legislators.

Indeed, its most prominent supporters are Republicans, President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle, and the 1988 Republican platform specifically endorses term limits on Congress.

But the movement has expanded its base, thanks at least in part to another season of scandal in the nation's capital. Last month, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. became the first 1992 Democratic presidential candidate to come out in favor of the idea.

Both sides agree that the Senate's mishandling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination, coming after revelations of congressional check bouncing, ticket fixing and other abuses, has fueled public sentiment in favor of limits.

"There is no question. It has contributed to this general anger that people feel toward elected officials and politicians," said Mark Brown, an official of the public employees union in Washington state who is helping direct the campaign to defeat term limits.

Polls show that popular support for limiting congressional terms cuts across demographic and partisan lines here and nationwide; a new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey shows that Americans favor the idea by a margin of better than 3-to-1.

"The term limit movement is supported by people on both the right and the left who have been frustrated by incumbency advantage," said Michael J. Malbin, a political scientist at the State University of New York, Albany.

"It's an idea that captures a large number of concerns and frustrations in a single concept. Once the idea was put forward, it had an attractiveness that gave it impetus," he said.

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