Backers of term limits refuse to end their fight

ON POLITICS

February 14, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress, and particularly House Speaker Tom Foley, no doubt are breathing easier in the (( wake of a federal judge's decision in Foley's home state of Washington throwing out term limits imposed by the voters in 1992.

Foley would have had to give up his House seat in 1998 as the result of a ballot initiative approved 15 months ago. But the judge ruled that the state may not impose qualifications beyond those of age, citizenship and state residency stipulated in the Constitution.

Advocates of term limits insist, however, that the decision will only intensify the anger of voters everywhere against those who resist efforts to circumscribe their length of service.

"Nothing in this decision is going to make people like incumbents better," says Cleta Deatherage Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Institute. "If I were Tom Foley, I'd really be worried. The talk shows are going to go ballistic now."

Radio and television talk show hosts have been in the forefront of the campaign to limit congressional terms, and Mitchell acknowledges that her organization keeps them posted on developments. She says she expects the same public outrage that occurred in Arkansas sometime ago when a judge threw out a similar term limit law governing state officials. That case is being appealed now.

"It's not going to go away," she says of the drive for congressional term limits. What she calls "the incumbent establishment" -- members of Congress, their staffs and the news media who cover politics -- "think they will chop off the head of the snake. But it's like a starfish -- chop one point off and two more grow back on."

Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, says the Washington state decision will be appealed to the federal circuit court and then to the Supreme Court. There, Mitchell says, the lower court judge's contention that states can't add to the constitutional qualifications for Congress has a good shot at being overruled.

At any rate, Jacob contends, congressional term limits ultimately won't be decided in the courts. If Congress doesn't get the message that the public wants them, he says, and "if the court says the only remedy is a constitutional amendment, that's what we'll do." Five freshman House members of both parties have already introduced a bill calling for a national advisory referendum on a constitutional amendment for term limits.

Foley, who was among those who challenged the Washington state law, has agreed that having the Supreme Court decide the issue "would be in the best interests of the voters of the state of Washington and of the nation."

According to Mitchell, there have been 21 lawsuits brought since 1990 against term limitation laws that now cover 37 governors, 16 state legislatures and members of Congress in 15 states. Asked whether there is a rival organization fighting term limits, she replies: "It's called Congress." Organized labor leadership also has opposed term limits, she says, but many rank-and-filers are on her side.

Jacob says the term limit idea has been mushrooming, with 300 town and city governments likely to be targeted this year, along with petition drives to impose congressional limits in seven more states. More and more candidates, he notes, are stipulating that if elected they will serve only two terms -- as Republican senatorial hopeful Oliver North did in announcing his candidacy.

Also, some House incumbents are saying that if voters give them one more two-year term, they will retire thereafter. But Jacob says: "We're not looking for people to step down. We don't want just turnovers, but for everyone to realize they're only going to be in there for a short time, so if they want to get anything done, they'd better get going. And that they're not just making the laws, they're living under them."

This is the basic argument for "citizen legislators" against careerists. Opponents argue that term limits not only are unconstitutional but also can deprive the public of some of the most experienced and expert legislators, such as Foley himself.

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