It's far too early to bury the term limitations On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- Opponents of term limitations for elected officials are gleefully pointing to the upset rejection of the sweeping Washington state initiative on the subject as a stake through the heart of the whole idea. But this particular vampire probably will keep walking when the sun goes down.

There are two obvious reasons for this prognosis. The Washington initiative failed because it was entirely too punitive for voters' tastes and its proponents committed a colossal political blunder that probably won't and can't be duplicated in other states.

For openers, the framers of the Washington initiative clearly, if you will pardon the expression, bit off more than the state's generally well-informed voters chose to chew. The term-limiters not only wanted to throw all targeted incumbent rascals out after a specified period, but wanted to do it on a schedule of retroactive service.

That is, they asked voters to agree that Washington's elected state officials and members of Congress be permitted only one more term if they had already reached the maximum period specified -- 10 consecutive years for state legislators, two terms for the governor and lieutenant governor and 12 consecutive years for members of Congress. That meant that the most influential political figure not only in the state but in Congress -- House Speaker Tom Foley -- would be handed his walking papers after 1994, and the clout he wielded for the state with him.

In the growing term-limitation movement that had already won victories in Oklahoma, California and Colorado, only the latter state included members of Congress, and with no provision for counting past service, so there wasn't the sword hanging over the Colorado congressional delegation threatened by the Washington initiative.

Belatedly, but still in time, Foley and other members of the Washington congressional delegation pointed out that the state would be placed at a distinct disadvantage in Washington if they and their seniority were summarily thrown away. They hammered hard at the notion that in the continuing battle that is fought in the Northwest over Columbia River water, Washington faced a clobbering from the ever-increasing California delegation, able to pile on its seniority as Washington gave away its own.

That argument went hand-in-hand with a particular attitude among Washington voters that in the end played a large role in scuttling the initiative, with an immense assist from the blundering term-limiters. There is in Washington state what might be called a galloping case of Calif-phobia: the fear and loathing of the huge nation/state to the South and expatriates who bring the trend-setting California lifestyle to their northern near-neighbor.

Californians who sell their overpriced homes, relocate in the Seattle area and drive up real estate costs are treated by many Washingtonians like a plague of locusts. The opponents of the term-limitation initiative played on this Calif-phobia and were helped immensely if inadvertently in their effort by the presence in Washington state in the last days of the campaign, touting term limits, of the one individual who most conspicuously represents all that Washingtonians dislike about California -- former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown took his presidential campaign into Washington, presumably hoping to hitch his wagon to a rising star, and served instead to give high visibility to the best argument the Washington foes of term limitations could have hoped for. Washingtonians, as their neighboring Oregonians, are an independent lot who don't like to be told what to do by outsiders, especially by Californians, and especially by that state's celebrated space cadet.

All this suggests that the Washington initiative was a special case whose defeat does not spell the death knell of the term-limitation idea. La Donna Lee, a national spokeswoman for the term-limiters, says voters in Washington state "didn't want to take punitive action" against their own incumbents by tossing them out so cavalierly.

Eddie Mahe, a leading proponent for congressional term limits by way of constitutional amendment, agrees. He says the idea "is alive and well," and if term limitation ever gets to Congress for a vote, legislators "will have hard time voting against it. And if they do, I hope their retirment accounts are in good shape."

An approach treating all states' congressional delegations alike doubtless would draw more support even in Washington state. Term limitation was wounded there the other day, but not fatally. It lives outside the range of Calif-phobia, and Jerry Brown can be expected to continue to tout it -- but not in Seattle.

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