IT'S FITTING that term limits come from out West. They're the modern political equivalent of the nostrums peddled by the old medicine shows -- guaranteed to cure whatever ails us, plus a bushel of other diseases we might catch.
The ailment is as clear as spots on a measles victim. We no longer believe that our elected officials have either the desire or the ability to express our needs and interests.
It doesn't matter if that belief describes a very few, a significant percentage or the majority of elected officials. That it exists at all is a serious problem. It says we have decided that only corrupt individuals run for public office or that public office corrupts men and women.
Term limits reflect the latter view. By throwing the rascals out after x number of years, regardless of record, we presumably guarantee ourselves a fresh batch of innocents who will be responsive to the voters. We just don't give them a reason to be responsive.
It's not as if term limits are a new idea. Every president since Harry Truman has faced the 22nd Amendment. Only three have actually become lame ducks. Dwight Eisenhower found himself powerless to slow down the military-industrial complex, Richard Nixon resigned because of Watergate and Ronald Reagan rode horses between naps. Are these men an argument for term limits?
Is William Donald Schaefer? His responsiveness to citizens while mayor was legendary. During his first term as governor he was a walking, talking, fire-breathing textbook case in applied political science. Now he's a petulant writer of midnight letters to critics, a carping lame duck reduced to crying in the plush wilderness of the state mansion that the voters don't understand the budget.
Our state Constitution has made sure that Schaefer lacks time to turn corrupt -- at the cost of destroying his political effectiveness. He can lead, but no one must follow. His style and temperament differ radically from that of his predecessor, but the political reality is that Schaefer has become another Harry Hughes, unable to exercise the full scope of gubernatorial powers.
We, the voters, have but a single means of making sure our elected representatives express our views. It's called the next election. Term limits remove from us that power.
Imagine the General Assembly filled with sleeping Reagans or Congress stuffed with quacking lame-duck Schaefers. Only the special interests would profit. Instead of preventing corruption, term limits invite it.
Put it in simple business terms. An employee has done a good job. He expects a new contract reflecting his performance. Term limits are the equivalent of firing him in order to hire an unproven newcomer who won't be corrupted by knowing where the restroom is located.
Term limits are an easy fix that won't work. Removing the perks of office would work, even though rooting them out will be difficult. We can start with transportation, housing and meals.
Provide each member of Congress one round trip to Washington per session, each state legislator the same to and from the state capital. Build comfortable dormitories for legislators to live in. Include cafeterias. Cater working lunches. For those who prefer to live at home and can do so, provide rapid transit tokens or coupons. If there's no rapid transit, they can fix that problem.
Forget limousines. Shuttle buses on a regular schedule will work. Public transportation would be even better. Cut the size of staffs -- one aide per state legislator, two (one for foreign affairs, one specializing in domestic affairs) per representative or senator. One secretary to keep appointments straight. And eliminate private barbershops, gyms, swimming pools and banks. A representative who gets his ears filled with common sense while getting his hair cut is in touch with the people.
Trim all executive staffs to 25 percent of current levels, including bodyguards. Then look for the fat and trim more. If Schaefer wants to live as well as the CEO of CSX, he should have bought stock. If President Bush wishes to approximate the lifestyle of the head of GMC, he should turn a profit next year.
Cut out all parking privileges and special license plates. If a delegate from my county wants to speed down I-95, let him or her take the same chances with the state police I would if my foot got heavy.
In other words, put service back in public service. Let elected officials be public servants in the same way law enforcement officers, firefighters and teachers are. They may not die rich, but they'll live with honor.
And if they want to make a career of service, don't throw term limits at them. Give them the chance to be re-elected again and again -- or be tossed out of office. Inexpensive government doesn't have to be cheap government.
H.H. Morris writes from Aberdeen.