Term limits for what?

November 27, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

--Robert Frost,

"Mending Wall"

When it comes to mending government, some think term limits will suffice. Incumbents of a certain age-in-office would simply be walled out. Vigor, passion and integrity would be irrelevant as the gates swung wide for replacements of unknown quality.

Proponents of limits find this prospect exhilarating. Any risk is outweighed by the need to dislodge career pols, virtually all of whom are thought of as trough feeders and self-servers who long ago forgot their mission.

Other critics of government today argue there is a more serious problem: It is finding and hanging onto those with talent and a healthy zeal for governing, an understanding of how politics and policy-making work.

The momentum, though, is with those who want immediate action.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives made a "contract" with voters that pledges early consideration of term limits.

Twenty-two states already have set limits for members of Congress and 17 now limit the tenure of state legislators. Counties are doing the same thing: Prince George's County, for example, is now seeing six of its nine council members to the door.

Organizations have come together to push for even wider application of this remedy.

Other groups have formed in opposition, arguing that no one should be allowed to limit the voter's choices in any way. Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of a term limit Arkansas voters adopted in 1992.

Yet even as the issue is debated, voters have had their say about limiting terms the old-fashioned way. The impatience that spawned the term-limit movement has literally been overtaken: Incumbents at every level lost their seats this year.

Maryland may have been something of an exception, having returned every incumbent member of Congress who wanted to be returned, along with its one U.S. senator up for re-election this year.

Parris N. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive who, as a Democrat in a Republican year, was the putative incumbent, appears to have won his race for governor. The other two statewide offices also were won by incumbents.

The state's General Assembly saw considerable turnover, but many incumbents who wanted another tour in Annapolis were able to win one. More than half of the 188 assemblymen and -women will be "new," but "new" can also mean old.

Of the 20 new state senators elected, only four were never-before-elected. The other 16 have been recycled, upgraded, rehabilitated or reborn.

One finds among these senators a former congressmen, a former county executive, a former city or county council member or two, and -- the largest group by far -- members of the House of Delegates.

Several who had been nailed by scandal of one sort or another are enjoying political reincarnation. Results like this lead to the conclusion, useful for the limiters' argument, that America has spawned a permanent political class -- nurtured by special interest money that produces infinitely bankable name recognition.

Strict term limits would stop this, accelerating the flow of new blood by prohibiting incumbents from running for a previously held post.

He or she might even be restrained from moving up or down or laterally in the governmental system. But would that be constitutional? Would it be smart? The difficulty of fashioning a law that covers all possibilities in a fair and sensible way arises quickly.

To be sure, the minority Republicans elected more of its number to both houses, moving both toward partisan balance.

In the Senate, the GOP doubled its presence, dropping the 40-7 Democratic margin to 32-15. Similar gains were posted in the House.

Set off against the complexity of limits and the value of an insurgency, is the issue of how to preserve quality.

The job once thought of as part-time public service has encroached upon lives and professions to such a degree that many cannot sustain it. A hundred other factors incline people to give up the political life: They focus anew on family, move away, die, get indicted -- tire of the bad jokes, the criticism and on-call nature of the work.

"I'm up 72 votes in the absentee count," one legislator said after ++ the Nov. 8 election, "and I honestly don't know if I want to win or lose." A well-respected veteran, he found himself suddenly wondering why he should be fully committed if his constituency was so divided about him.

About 40 percent or more of General Assembly members leave with every election. The percentage was higher this year, and some of the missing are key decision-makers.

Others are important for the principles of independence they came to represent. The vast majority are somewhat anonymous: they tried to read the bills and to cast their votes religiously. A handful smoked in the lounges when the roll was called.

Three who are leaving

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