President Bush is planning to throw the full weight of the White House behind the burgeoning movement to limit congressional terms.
Term limitation is, in the words of Victor Hugo, "an idea whose turn has come." Three-quarters of the electorate support it. As the New York Times observed in an editorial: "Voters are fed up with fat cats in safe seats."
John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, disclosed Bush's plans in an address to the National Press Club. He said the president "will press for a term-limitation amendment that deals with the problems associated with perpetuating the public life of those who are elected to govern people.
"The reality that incumbency breeds a very different attitude is sensed by the public, and I think if you look at what was intended as a structure by those who founded this country, you'll see we've moved a great distance from it."
The charge has been made that since Democrats control both houses of Congress, the GOP president is making this a partisan issue. Nothing could be more remote from the truth. Two of the chief executive's best allies on Capitol Hill would be ousted if the amendment becomes law. They are Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., and House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill.
The strongest argument for term limitations is that too many lawmakers feather their own nests. They collect enormous re-election war chests from special interests and make themselves virtually invulnerable to effective challenge at the polls.
The strong anti-incumbent sentiment last Election Day was thwarted by the incumbency phenomenon. Many citizens have become so disgusted that they refuse to vote. Nothing could do so much to restore their faith in our country's institutions than passage of this amendment.
The president is in a good moral position to push it because he himself is limited to two terms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the time-honored tradition of no third terms for presidents. The current constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms was enacted in response to FDR's third and fourth terms. Americans rightly feared the possibility of a dictator. Now, public disgust centers on legislators. Voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma recently approved limits on state lawmakers' terms by huge majorities. Colorado voters limited members of Congress as well.
The three states differ on the limits. The one most often mentioned for Congress is 12 years in one office. After 12 years in the House, a congressman could still serve the same time in the Senate, for a total of 24 years, hardly a severe restriction. This writer thinks the limit should be eight years for one office.
The fired-up activists who were behind the successful drives to limit state legislators' terms in California, Colorado and Oklahoma now promise to expand the movement to as many as 20 other states by 1992 and seek to limit the terms of U.S. representatives and senators.
Peter Schabarum, a Los Angeles County supervisor, was the principal sponsor of Proposition 140, which was approved by California voters this year. It restricts the terms of most California public officials. Schabarum says that an initiative limiting members of Congress to a dozen years would qualify for the ballot of the nation's largest state in 1992.
President Lewis K. Uhler of the National Tax Limitation Foundation welcomed President Bush's support for the movement. But he also warned that it must not become a partisan issue.
Ken Rietz, a political consultant, thinks term limitation would be a tremendous boost for the democratic process. "It will help in recruitment of good candidates," he predicted. "It's hard to get people to run against incumbents who represent safe districts and are sitting on a pile of money."
Some of the participants at a recent conference in Washington sponsored by Americans to Limit Congressional Terms said the restrictions would help women and minorities, who are now underrepresented in Congress and usually underfinanced when they dare to challenge entrenched incumbents.
Colorado State Sen. Terry Devine, the leader of the successful campaign in his state, explained that Colorado citizens rejected what he termed "the scam, the con game" that seniority of congressmen is needed to "bring back the pork."