George Mitchell's Good Example

March 14, 1994

What a sad symbol of Congress in action: Rep. William Natcher, wheeled in from Bethesda Naval Hospital on a gurney, medical personnel hovering, so he could vote and keep alive his record of never missing a single roll call vote in 41 years.

His vote helped kill a measure calling for a congressional investigation of the House Post Office scandal. That vote was interesting for other than "Guinness Book of Records" reasons. Mr. Natcher had voted a few weeks before to kill a proposal to apply the new independent counsel law not only to the executive branch but to Congress itself. (Maryland Reps. Ben Cardin, Steny Hoyer, Kweisi Mfume and Albert Wynn also voted against both bills.)

This voting pattern shows how the House, in its 39th straight year of control by one party (also a record), often puts personal and partisan privilege and interests above the nation's business and best interests. The chief suspect in the House Post Office scandal is a Democrat almost as senior as Mr. Natcher -- Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, who was elected in 1958. He has admitted to using public funds for private purposes. Even if not illegal, this is unethical and deserving of an in-house inquiry.

Although incumbency too often provides a life-long lease on Capitol Hill, we oppose statutory term limits. The people should always have the right to elect whomever they wish, though unfortunately they stick too long with incumbents as in Mr. Natcher's Kentucky district. (There is a possibility that the people of Illinois' Fifth District will oust Mr. Rostenkowski in a primary tomorrow.)

The best form of term limits is self-imposed. George Mitchell demonstrated that last week when he made the surprise announcement that he is retiring this year after 14 years in the Senate. The majority leader from Maine sounded like one of the Founding Fathers when he explained his idea of congressional service: "I always thought I would serve a limited time," he said. "I never intended that it would be a lifetime position."

Senator Mitchell leads by example more often than by arm twisting. The next Senate Democratic leader -- likely to be one of the senators of a younger generation than the 60-year-old Senator Mitchell -- should keep that in mind. His style has been effective under Republican and Democratic presidents.

Senator Mitchell has now set another good example worth following. It is true that his skills and dedication will be missed by his party, his state and his country, but if this nation's democratic ideals mean anything, they mean that there are no indispensable individuals.

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