What may be one of the hottest political issues of the New Year is a surge of support for an old idea. — limiting the number of terms that a state legislator and a member of Congress may serve. Initiatives to amend the state constitutions Will be underway in 1990 in California (supported by Attorney General John Van de Kamp as part of his gubernatorial campaign) and in Colorado. Over a dozen members of Congress have introduced resolutions proposing a constitutional amendment to limit the terms to twelve years in office and then out.
The history of these efforts goes back a while in 1977 the Continental Congress the predecessor to the Congress we know limited delegates to a maximum of three years. In the early 19th century years of Congress, there was a high turnover and not just by defeat. Members still had a sense of being citizen‑ legislators, of serving in Congress for a few years and then returning to the former work as farmers, trades people or professionals.
In recent decades, careerism set in with a fierce array of incumbency advantages. Now, with huge campaign finance war chests and slick public relations and television skills, members of the House and Senate are nearing state of permanence in office, should they choose.
Less than 2 percent of the House Representatives were defeated in 1986 out of 435 offices. In 1986, one percent of the legislators lost their seats and only one of them did not have a shadow of scandal over his campaign. Over in the Senate, perhaps two or three incumbents up for election lost their seats.
Polls show the public: favoring limited terms on a response range from 60 percent to 80 percent, depending on the poll.
Opponents of limited terms say that legislatures would be weakened vis-à-vis the executive branch because the necessary experience and seniority oh t4 would not be around in Congress and at the state assemblies. It is not clear that all the experience and seniority in the world would save the taxpayers from the HUD, S&L and Pentagon procurement scandals. On the contrary, experience and seniority in Congress usually spells co-optation by special interest groups which have their grip on government agencies as well as senior members of Congress.
As a young Congressman, Les Aspin gave waste and fraud in the Pentagon a real going over with a stream of disclosures and press releases. Now as a veteran chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he is considerably laid back and often subdued.
At the state legislative level, there are venerable bulls around who dictatorially dominate their fellow colleagues with a power network of quid pro duos built up over decades. Speakers of the House, as with Vernal Riffe in Ohio, intimidate new legislators who want to bring fresh views and ideas to their institution by reducing critical secretarial service, siphoning away potential campaign funds, blocking committee assignments and other retaliatory measures. Soon the new legislator gets the idea that the best wag to get along is to go along.
Many people properly look to the democracy of a legislature from the outside — namely, are the lawmakers elected cleanly and are _hey responsive to constituents complaints. But very often the senior legislators who dominate their House with an iron hand have destroyed the internal freedom of legislators to do their job for the people.
Readers who wish more information on the limited term issue, and the drive to repeal the Bush-Congress Pay Grab, may send a self-addressed, stamped, business envelope to Congressional Accountability Project, P. O. Box 18766, Washington, DC 20036.