Constitutional challenge poses potential roadblock to congressional term limits

January 03, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington BureauWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Fueled by voter resentment, the political steamroller to limit the terms of members of Congress is running strongly into the New Year but also faces a potential constitutional roadblock.

While seven states prepare to vote on the same kind of curbs on Capitol Hill incumbents that already have been adopted in 15 other states, a constitutional challenge put on a fast track by a federal judge in Seattle is moving ahead, too, with a potentially fateful hearing due this month.

The idea that members of Congress should not have unlimited chances to get re-elected has now become a topic of national debate, with the opposing sides hardening their rhetoric as well as their positions.

But the two sides tend to agree that the wide voter popularity of congressional term limits reflects a deepening discontent with today's politics -- anger over the kinds of campaigns now waged or resentment over feeling shut out.

Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, a firm opponent of term limits, suggests that the "political system is failing the American people."

Voters are disgusted with the role of special interests and "big money in the political process," empty campaign rhetoric, and the government's seeming inability to deal with hard national problems, such as crime and health care, she says.

Paul Jacob, a strong supporter of limits as the executive director of U.S. Term Limits, sees the campaign as much more than a result of "blind citizen anger." Instead, he says, it is a genuine reform movement, demanding "citizen participation" in a government that gives incumbents all the advantages and insulates them from "the people who pay the bills."

The term limit proposals, of course, are not restricted to members of Congress. In state after state, and in many cities, including New York and Los Angeles, local and state officials are being limited in their incumbency.

But the limits on congressional terms appear to be most threatenedby the constitutional challenge.

The Supreme Court, in fact, already has passed up a challenge to limits on state and local officials' terms. It has yet to face a congressional limit case, which is sure to raise different issues. One or more of those cases may reach the justices within a matter of months.

After a slow beginning, with only Colorado imposing limits on congressional terms three years ago and Washington state turning them down in 1991, the movement had great success in 1992. Voters in 14 states, including Washington on the second try, adopted similar limits.

Some 22.6 million Americans have voted for those 15 states' congressional limits -- a nearly 2-to-1 margin over the 11.6 million who voted "no."

The majority in favor of those restrictions has been as high as 77 percent in both Florida and Wyoming, and as low as 52 percent in Washington.

Terry Considine of Englewood, Colo., one of the founders of the national movement and the leader of the initial voter initiative in his state, has likened the campaign to the Progressive movement that led early in this century to "direct election of U.S. senators, primary elections, votes for women and attacks on political corruption."

The ultimate impact of congressional term cutoffs has been illustrated recently by the Congressional Quarterly, a publication that closely monitors politics, elections and the work of Congress. It counted 74 current members of the House's total of 435 who, by the end of 1994, would have served longer than their states' limits provide.

One of those is the speaker of the House, Democrat Thomas S. Foley of Washington.

But the limits actually would not sweep that many members aside that soon. The limits laws usually do not start counting until their year of effectivity, 1992, thus letting members continue to seek re-election for several more terms. Mr. Foley, for example, would not have to give up his seat until January 1999.

Although the term limit forces say that the popularity of the idea crosses all demographic lines, liberals and their political followers are taking the lead in raising constitutional challenges, especially to the congressional limits, and conservatives are leading the defense in court.

Arguing that term limits for Congress are unconstitutional, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution has called them "a false panacea, a slam-dunk approach to political reform that offers little beyond emotional release of pent-up frustrations."

But a supporter of their constitutionality, University of Illinois law professor Ronald D. Rotunda, has remarked that the turnover in the [British] House of Lords is greater than in the U.S. House of Representatives, and even the membership of the former Soviet Politburo changed more frequently than that of the House.

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