Term Limits: Easier Than Voting

PATRICK ERCOLANO

August 15, 1992|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Throw the rascals out!

That battle cry of the American voter resonates as far back as the time of Tom Paine, who once called for frequent elections so that ''the elected might never form to themselves an interest separate from the electors.''

Yet even the author of ''Common Sense'' might be alarmed to witness the intensity of the throw-'em-out fever now spreading from Ellicott City to Eureka, California.

Disgusted with gridlocked government and political scandal, more and more Americans are turning to the concept of the term limit in hopes of removing what they perceive to be so much dead wood among local, state and federal office-holders. Residents of 15 states so far have managed to get term-limit initiatives on this November's ballot.

California, Colorado and Oklahoma already have limits for state officials. Colorado also limits the terms of its federal office-holders; California might do the same if voters say yea this fall.

Locally, upcoming elections in Anne Arundel and Howard counties will include proposals to limit terms for county council members. And in Carroll County, the debate over whether to adopt a charter form of government has touched on term limits. (Maryland's constitution bars limits for state and federal office-holders, though the governor is limited to two consecutive terms.)

Like bungee-jumping and karaoke, supporting term limits has become the thing to do, especially among pols looking to tap into the virulent anti-incumbent mood among voters. Which provides us the spectacle of some incumbent making a statement that can be boiled down to the following: ''Throw the bums out -- but for pete's sake, not me!''

Who is for term limits? For starters, George Bush, a president laboring to save his job so that four years from now he can lose it to a term limit. Two vanquished presidential candidates, Ross Perot and Jerry Brown, back the idea.

So do incumbent Congressmen Newt Gingrich of Mississippi, Dennis Eckart of Ohio and Andy Ireland of Florida. The Supreme Court gave its nod last March when it ruled that states are free to set term limits. And while no one apparently has asked, it's a safe bet that Bart Simpson, the Dream Team and Morris the Cat think term limits are swell too.

Still, as Bart himself might say, don't have a cow, man. The term-limit idea might be as trendy as bungee-jumping and karaoke, but it's no less silly than those two faddish pastimes.

A New York Times-CBS poll last month showed to what extent term-limit advocates could be letting passion obscure reason. According to the poll, 71 percent of Americans said they disapproved of Congress' performance, but only 30 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved of how their own congressional representatives do their jobs.

And therein lies a major flaw of the term limit. Hot for the idea, the majority of Americans might OK its implementation, although it could cost them the services of representatives whom most voters would want to remain in office. Inherent in throwing all the rascals out is the danger of losing the good public servants along with the bad.

Another hazard of the term limit would be the proliferation of lame-duck politicians -- as if there isn't enough quackery in local council chambers, state buildings and the halls of Congress. Term-limit fans should ask themselves if they would be better served by an official beholden to their votes or to the calendar.

Clearly, sadly, many people think term limits are worth the price of losing good leaders and creating flocks of lame ducks.

But those are people who, out of an understandable though ultimately harmful sense of anger, would rather resort to an anti-democratic gimmick than uphold the responsibility of being informed citizens.

With sufficient information, they can determine for themselves whether their elected representatives are performing well or poorly, and then employ the term limit that became available to them when they reached adulthood: the vote.

This campaign season offers abundant proof that the vote is indeed the best kind of term limit. Incumbent members of the House of Representatives are dropping like bungee-jumpers. Congressional Quarterly predicts that the modern record of 118 new members, set in 1948, will probably be shattered. Such a potent message of voter outrage would be muted if term limits became widespread.

In fact, with voter turnout already at embarrassingly low levels, term limits could make it sink further. People might figure: Why bother voting for or against an incumbent if his next term would be his last anyway?

The term limit is simply a bad idea. Its backers might advance it as a way to punish politicians, but it would really end up punishing all of us.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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