In Praise of Self-Imposed Term Limits

GEORGE F. WILL

November 14, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- When one of the fastest rising stars in Congress' firmament decides he would rather not twinkle any more, his decision is an index of that institution's stresses. When Dennis Eckart, 41, announced that his sixth term will be his last, he expressed a frustration, tinged with guilt, felt by many members: ''I found myself making more family decisions over the telephone than at the kitchen table.''

After he said that, a number of congressional spouses called his wife to ask, ''What did you put in his coffee?'' And could they borrow a cup?

Even when he hasn't been traveling to and from his northeast Ohio district -- up to 45 times in election years -- late sessions in the House have often prevented him from getting home before his son, 11, is asleep.

Mr. Eckart is a liberal. He likes government. He was bred to the business. His father was a Euclid city councilor. In 1960, at age 10, he met candidate Jack Kennedy at a political picnic. He sped through college in three years and law school in two and after six years in the state legislature came to Congress in 1980, at age 30.

He was on his way -- perhaps in just another decade -- to a coveted chairmanship, of the Energy and Commerce Committee. But last December, he left a letter under the Christmas tree promising his wife he would not run again. Six weeks ago he told his constituents:

''For 18 years I have placed my passion for politics and public service above the rest of my family and friends. At a very early age our son, Eddy, used to say that his dad 'shakes hands for a living.' One year I was on airplanes more than 90 times. That's more than the soccer games and swim meets I've been able to attend.''

A few years ago he was asked to give an orientation speech to freshman Democratic members. He preached what he had long practiced: Go home constantly, do as many call-in radio shows as you can, keep your campaign organization in operation and a storefront office open. He would give a different speech today.

Like many members he is dismayed by the increasing truculence of constituents, who no longer ask for things but demand them. He is tired of money raising. Most of all, he despairs of ever having elevating, or even civil, campaigns, given the role of television. The axiom among his colleagues is, ''If you can't explain your vote in 30 seconds, it's the wrong vote.'' He says, ''A 30-second negative ad can matter more to a candidate's career than a lifetime voting record.'' So political discourse concerns vacuities (''Morning in America,'' ''Competence, not ideology'').

Mr. Eckart will be saying ''enough'' at the end of 12 years, the maximum length of service suggested by many proponents of term limits. He opposes term limits, but the logic of his congressional life, and his litany of widely shared dissatisfactions, buttress the case for them.

In the pell-mell pace of congressional life, there is a glaring disproportion, an antic hyperkinesis, an extremism. It arises largely from the professionalization of politics by people who come to Congress at an early age, with no earlier career to turn back to, desperate for lifetime tenure. Members could lead less distorted lives, could spend less time massaging their districts, if they invested less importance in job security.

Mr. Eckart is a young man with an old soul, the result of a searing experience. No, the experience has not been service in Congress, but rather a lifetime rooting for the Cleveland Indians. He can rattle off the Indians' 1959 lineup. His retirement will mean he can go to more Indians games. No good deed goes unpunished.

His departure from the House, in the interest of his home, is indeed a good deed. There is no disparagement of his congressional career in the observation that nothing in that career has done him more credit than the leaving of it.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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