Politicans as Usual

June 22, 1994

The Supreme Court's decision to hear a congressional term limits case is good news. We hope the high court takes up the case quickly next term and renders a rapid verdict. We hope it will rule that term limits are unconstitutional.

We expect that it will. In order to uphold term limits, the high court would have to read into the Constitution's Ninth and Tenth amendments the right of states to over-rule the "congressional qualifications" clause of the Constitution's Article I. That is something no judge has been willing to do.

Advocates of term limits for members of Congress make some good arguments about the ill effects that come with entrenched incumbency, but they would treat all veteran legislators alike. The brilliant and popular People's Choice would have to leave office along with the Best Senator Money Could Buy.

There has to be a better way, and there is: competitive elections. When and if the Supreme Court makes it official that the term-limits movement has nowhere to go but out of business so far as members of Congress are concerned, its advocates in each state ought to turn their considerable energy and commitment to that cause. If the real problem is unresponsiveness due to non-competitiveness, then grass roots rooted in a truly level playing field offers the best long-term solution.

Some claim the real problem is too many old and long-term representatives and senators. They must not have noticed that the trend is away from the Congressman-for-Life routine of recent decades. While relatively few incumbents are defeated, enough are worn down or scared out to assure a pretty good turnover. Perhaps half the House and a third of the Senate next year will have been first elected in the 1990s.

But neither accelerated turnover among incumbents nor a victory in the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds should lead Congress and other members of the political establishment to ignore the meaning of the term-limits movement: There is a real distaste -- even disgust -- among voters with politicians as usual.

In every state that allows the initiative (citizens putting a law directly on the ballot), with the probable exception of Mississippi, term-limit laws have been or will have been approved by November. But in no state where only state legislators can put term-limit laws on the ballot (as in Maryland) has one been enacted.

With a gulf like that between officeholders and voters on such an issue, a real crisis of democracy is brewing.

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