THE LEADER of an organization called U.S. Term Limits -- which lobbies for guess-what -- describes the debate under way in the House of Representatives this week over such proposed constitutional limits as "a shell game."
Paul Jacob, executive director of the lobby, may be correct. Many incumbents on Capitol Hill are suspected of giving only lip service in support of a constitutional amendment curtailing the number of terms they can serve in the House and Senate.
If Jacobs is correct, this is one shell game that could end up benefiting the public. Artificially curtailing the number of terms an elected official could serve in Congress would destroy a fundamental freedom of American voters to choose their representatives. After all, members of Congress can't stay on term after term just because they want to. The voters are choosing to keep the long-serving members in office.
Limiting congressional service to a dozen years -- as prescribed in the main GOP bill under consideration -- also would cause disruptive wholesale turnovers. Automatically, and without any distinction, excellent legislators would be junked along with mediocre ones.
Term limits would substitute blind mechanical processes for flexible individual judgments -- based on individual legislative performance -- rendered on Election Day.
Champions of term limits say the change
would encourage fresh blood in Congress, open opportunities for more candidates and diminish the reliance of legislators on special interests.
But adults are free to seek public office now. Limits would open broader opportunities for more candidates, but at what price? Special interests would likely gain more authority than they would lose. Rookie legislators would be searching for expertise on unfamiliar but important matters. They could become captives of their staffs and interests with narrow viewpoints to sell.
And what happens to continuity when droves of experienced legislators, reaching the limit at the same time, must all simultaneously walk away from responsibilities they have handled well? It's the amateur hour.
As for the limit on presidential terms so often cited, the analogy is substantially amiss. America has but a single president, armed with tremendous concentrated power. America has 435 House members and 100 senators. It's an institution of purposely diffused individual power.
The controlling principle here must be that in a democracy voters are free to retain or dismiss an elected official seeking re-election. It's their decision.
Last fall Republicans recaptured Congress in a stunning upset. Voters imposed term limits on many Democratic incumbents. They didn't need an artificial limit to help them do it.