The Politicos Are Disappointed in the People


June 24, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., who was elected to Congress in 1964 when an Oldsmobile cost $3,495, is suing the people of his state for their impertinence last November when they voted to impose term limits on the states' U.S. senators and representatives. His maneuver is a suitable place to start an update on the up-and-coming term-limits movement.

In all 14 states where the political class could not prevent people from voting on term limits in November, limits passed, getting more votes in the 14 states than Ross Perot got in 50 states.

But Mr. Foley contends that state-imposed limits are unconstitutional because they add a fourth qualification for office to the three (age, citizenship, residency) the Constitution stipulates.

His opponents say state-imposed limits are an exercise of the states' constitutional authority to set ''the times, place and manner'' of elections and are similar to measures the Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional attempts by states to enhance the openness of electoral processes.

The former attorney general, Griffin Bell, who rightly says ''term limitation is the most important constitutional issue the Supreme Court will decide in the remainder of this century,'' will be lead counsel for the Term Limits Legal Institute against Mr. Foley.

Mr. Foley and the other Democratic caesars of the House will not even let a term-limiting constitutional amendment come to a floor vote. Members are terrified of voting on a measure that, if enacted, would end their careers, and also might be fatal to them if they killed it.

Term limits are favored by more than 70 percent of the public -- by large majorities of both parties and all regions, by both sexes, and by whites, blacks and Hispanics. But term-limiting constitutional amendments are suffocated in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Jack Brooks, D-Texas, who was elected in 1952, when Arthur Godfrey was a radio star and the Braves played baseball in Boston.

In the Senate, where it is harder to silence a minority, term limits are gaining. In a 1948 test they got one vote; in 1991 they got 30; this year, 39.

If the political class fought the nation's problems as tenaciously as it fights term limits, America would be paradise by next Tuesday. The Arkansas politicians trying to overturn what their voters did in November include Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers, who is using the services of the Senate's counsel. That means Arkansans are suffering the indignity of seeing their decision contested by their (and our) tax dollars.

Nothing new here. Before Florida voted for limits last November, a Democratic congressman used the House counsel in an attempt to knock term limits off the ballot. Today the political classes in Florida and Nebraska are trying to overturn the November results.

But they are up against the most broadly based and successful movement in the nation. To the question ''Where most recently have term limits passed?'' the answer is: ''Wherever most recently people were permitted to vote on them.'' Last month Los Angeles voters imposed limits on the mayor and the city council. New York City's political class and bureaucratic allies are frantically struggling to block a referendum on term limits for the mayor, borough presidents, comptroller and city council. New Yorkers for term limits have gone to court seeking only the right to vote on the issue.

Already 15 states with 30 percent of all Senate seats and 36 percent of all House seats have imposed limits on their senators and representatives. New Jersey is on the way to becoming the 16th: Monday the New Jersey Assembly voted 52-23 to impose limits on senators and congressmen. The Senate president and the governor favor limits.

New Hampshire still might be 16th --the governor and all four congressmen favor limits -- but the state Senate Judiciary Committee has voted, 3-2, for essentially nullifying amendments, including a particularly fatuous one that says there will be no term limits if Congress passes campaign finance ''reform.''

Speaking of which, the political class in Congress offers campaign ''reform'' as an alternative to term limits. But that class simply cannot control its lust for ever-more-secure incumbency. So last week the Senate passed a bill that says challengers (who must spend more than incumbents just to get to parity, given the myriad advantages of incumbency) must spend no more than incumbents spend -- the limits to be stipulated by incumbents, of course. And if challengers do spend more, then one-third of all the contributions to the challengers will be confiscated and given to their opponents.

This bill has been perpetrated partly as a ruse to defuse the term-limits movement. However, it demonstrates the marvelous efficiency of term limitations as an issue. All the writhing of the political class in response to term limitations -- attempts to block votes, attempts to overturn votes, corrupt ''reforms'' -- demonstrate the wisdom of the movement to purge politics of careerism.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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