There's something to be said for no term limits on politicians

March 05, 2001|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota pledged to serve only two six-year terms when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990. The other day he announced that he would be running for a third term next year.

The U.S. Term Limits Foundation responded to that with unusually direct language: "It's sad to see Sen. Paul Wellstone announce that he has been corrupted by the power politics of Washington. The desire for a political career has turned an idealistic college professor into a partisan political hack."

Mr. Wellstone had been a poster boy for the so-called "self-limiters." But, like most, he changed his mind when push came to being shoved out of Washington. He discovered like many before him that the country just could not run as well without him fighting for the red, white and blue, the good, right and true.

I was, back in the early 1970s, a pretty visible advocate of throwing the bums out after a certain while. I remember getting a note endorsing an essay I had written in Newsweek urging a two-term limit for senators from a young state legislator in Montana named Max Baucus. He is now completing his fourth six-year term in the U.S. Senate.

Well, we all change our minds now and then. Living in California when term limits were adopted in 1990 for state legislators there -- eight years for state senators and six for assembly members -- I was humbled to see the downside of depending exclusively on novices. Among the effects of limits was a loss of institutional memory, constant re-invention of the wheel, and constant job-switching and trading as legislators became mayors, council members and judges, and mayors, council members and judges became legislators. Anything to keep a place at the public nipple.

Having said that, I am impressed by a little tract written by the new term-limits poster boy, Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who did keep his promise, leaving the House of Representatives last month after three terms.

"The Trust Committed to Me" -- the title is a quote from the original American self-limiter, two-termer George Washington -- is published by the Term Limits Foundation. In 124 small pages, Mr. Sanford, who is back home in the real estate business, describes his six years in workable, idealistic prose that is hard not to admire. Pledge or no pledge, he would have been easily re-elected last year; maybe he could have become the Strom Thurmond of his generation.

Mr. Thurmond, of course, has been in office so long, more than 50 years, that a significant part of Washington mornings is people of power waking up with a single question on their minds: Did Strom wake up?

Mr. Sanford describes the scene when he joined Mr. Thurmond at a ceremony at the Air Force base outside Charleston: "The senator wanted his refreshment without ice. A battery of full colonels, heeding the call of duty, leaped into action, straining lemonade with their fingers to catch the ice as more than a little liquid sluiced down their starched sleeves."

More important, he describes scenes where junior congressmen like himself were literally locked in rooms until they followed the orders of party leaders to vote for salary and committee budget increases. Still, Mr. Sanford and a half-dozen buddies, Republican conservatives all, refused to do what they were told to do. He also told constituents that he would vote against saving naval bases in his district and federal financing for a new bridge in his town.

"If self-limits do nothing else, they afford a legislator the freedom to stand up for what he believes. Under term limits, you know each word is not going to determine the rest of your life. ... If I wanted to make the House my home, I'd have to trim my sails to satisfy the needs of party and re-election. But I didn't intend to stay."

Now Mr. Sanford is gone, and though I disagreed with him on many, many votes, I suspect Washington is a smaller place without him and a few of his kind.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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