States may vote on term limits

CONGRESSIONAL TERMINATOR 15

August 01, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For many House and Senate members who survive the angry voters at the polls this November, there could be little time for rejoicing. A career-ending idea may also win approval: term limits.

Though Maryland is not among them, 15 states are expected to have congressional term-limit proposals on the November ballot. Proponents say term limits are needed to eliminate the professional politician and to restore a "citizen government" envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

While attention has been focused on the retreat of Ross Perot, the troubles of President Bush and the rise of Democrat Bill Clinton, the term-limit movement has been chugging along at the state level.

"It's happening across the country, it's not just one or two states," said Jeff Langan, spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, a non-profit, non-partisan group encouraging the state initiatives.

A poor economy, Mr. Perot's pro-change themes and a deadlocked, scandal-tinged Congress have all served to fuel the term-limit movement. "There's definitely an avenue of change and that's term limits," Mr. Langan said.

Maryland does not allow ballot initiatives under its constitution. Bills in the General Assembly that have sought to impose term limits have never been successful.

Most of the initiatives around the country call for a six-year limit -- three terms -- for House members; all propose 12 years -- two terms -- in the Senate. None is retroactive.

"I think there's still substantial support for it," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Political Report, a newsletter tracking the term-limit effort. "I expect all or most of [the states] to pass it."

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in April showed that 80 percent of those questioned favored term limits.

But some argue that the state initiatives will not pass constitutional muster.

"The states don't have the legal authority to impose term limits," said Morton Rosenberg, a specialist in American public law at the Library of Congress. The U.S. Constitution "doesn't allow them to put an absolute preclusion on citizens, who are otherwise qualified, running for Congress."

Only a constitutional amendment, requiring a two-thirds vote in both house of Congress and approval by three-quarters of the states, could clear the way for the term limits.

"It's absolutely constitutional," Mr. Langan countered. "The Constitution doesn't explicitly say [states] can't." He also noted that the Constitution reserves the times, places and manner of House and Senate elections to the state.

In 1990, Colorado became the first state to allow term limits on the federal level. But because it doesn't go into effect until 2002, there has been no court challenge.

A term-limit law in California was allowed by the state Supreme fTC Court, but the measure applies only to the state's Legislature.

An effort in Washington state to limit terms failed last year. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, who represents the eastern part of the state, led the opposition and labeled the effort unconstitutional. Other opponents successfully argued that losing senior members like Mr. Foley would hurt the state's interests.

But this year, another term-limit measure is on the ballot in Washington, and Mr. Langan hopes for a different outcome. Unlike last year's measure, this one would not be retroactive. And nine other states would have to pass term-limit measures before it can go into effect.

He contends that term-limit victories will force Congress to pass a constitutional amendment requiring term limits. Although Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, has continually pushed term-limit measures, they have never left committee.

Mr. Langan theorizes that if an increasing number of lawmakers have their congressional careers cut short, they may back term limits for colleagues whose states didn't pass such measures.

But some political analysts say a large turnover in Congress this year may deflate support for term limits. As many as 125 new members are expected in the House.

Mr. Rothenberg isn't so sure. Those trying to stop the term-limit juggernaut should argue the economic costs to a state through the loss of congressional clout and not mount a "defensive" strategy of unconstitutionality, he says.

Organized opposition seems scant. One group against the measure, Let the People Decide of Alexandria, Va., disconnected its phone. And many in Congress may be more concerned about keeping their seats than defeating term limits, Mr. Rothenberg said.

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