Feckless in Seattle

February 18, 1994

A federal judge in Seattle has thrown out a Washington state law denying a member or recent member of Congress with six years of House service or 12 years of Senate service the right to have his or her name printed on the ballot when seeking re-election. Write-ins would still count, but very few write-in candidates ever get elected.

The voters got this law put on the ballot, then approved of it last November, but grass-roots effort and popular will proved to be feckless. Judge William L. Dwyer said in his opinion that the only limitations allowed on candidates for federal office are those specified in the Constitution, which are age, citizenship and state residency. Only by amending the Constitution could terms be limited, if this ruling holds up. It is being appealed, and surely will go all the way to the Supreme Court.

We don't know how the Supreme Court will rule. Whatever the outcome, we think term limits are a bad idea. We say that even though we are in full agreement with those critics of Congress who believe the institution suffers greatly from being run by legislators who serve for very long periods of time, accruing seniority-related powers that allow them to thwart the will of the public. We just think voters should have the right to elect their choices to Congress with as few restrictions as possible.

The most vocal supporters of term limits are Republicans. They express frustration at a House of Representatives that has been controlled by Democratic majorities since 1955. Their Republican Party has made term limits a high priority item. Several party leaders have endorsed the idea of statutory limits, and the party's 1992 platform called -- once again -- for a term-limits constitutional amendment. It said the power of incumbency was too great for old-fashioned democracy to solve the problem. Ironically, Judge Dwyer is a Ronald Reagan appointee.

The political advantage of incumbents is excessive and dangerous, but that is only part of the reason there is a permanent Republican minority in the House (the Senate has only been Republican for eight of the past 50 years). Another part is that Republicans have not demonstrated to voters that they deserve to control Congress.

In the past two national elections, voters had a choice of party nominees in 118 House races in which there was no incumbent. Democrats won 61.8 percent of those contests. (Republicans did better in the Senate, winning seven of 12 open seats.) If Republicans had won 60 percent of the open-seat contests during the Reagan-Bush era, their party would control Congress today.

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