Whoa On That Proposal To Limit Congressional Terms The Campaign Is Being Run Out Of A Republican Political Consultant's Office.

Posted: March 18, 1990

Does the public think that incumbent members of Congress get re-elected too easily and serve too long? Supporters of a constitutional amendment that would restrict U.S. representatives and senators to 12 years of service point to a recent Gallup Poll indicating that 70 percent of Americans favor limits on congressional tenure. Without irony, they also point with alarm to the fact that 98 percent of incumbents got re-elected in 1988, often by large margins, including many whose tenures exceeded 12 years. The poll results they acclaim as vox populi. The actual election results they deride as illustrating the problem.

The late Ferdinand Marcos once canceled a presidential election in the Philippines on the grounds that an opinion poll indicated that the people didn't want one. At the time I thought that was the ultimate exercise in opinion-poll democracy. But this is even better: citing a poll both as superior to past elections and as a reason to foreclose future ones.

Americans to Limit Congressional Terms is one of those pre-fab interest groups that can now be put together overnight with stationery, fancy p.r. folder, "national advisory board" of distinguished has-beens and so on.

It is run out of a Republican political consultant's office and, despite the support of a few token Democrats, is basically an expression of Republican frustration at the Democratic dominance of Congress over the last few decades.

Many people seem to believe that whereas the apparent Republican lock on the White House is a mandate, the apparent Democratic lock on Congress is a scandal.

It wasn't long ago that Republicans were talking a lot about repealing the 22d Amendment (1951), which limits presidents to two terms. That one was also a Republican creation - an expression of frustration at the long tenure of FDR.

In the glorious afternoon of the Reagan years, Republicans came to regret it. Their argument for repeal - made by Ronald Reagan himself - is the same one made by opponents of congressional term limits: In a democracy, people should be able to vote for whomever they want.

The mere fact that a term limit would make the American political system less democratic is not a definitive argument against it. Our constitutional system is full of hedges against democracy, starting with the notion of representative democracy itself: the will of the people expressing itself through elected representatives, not directly.

The cumbersome process for amending the Constitution is another example.

Furthermore, even the basic idea of democracy doesn't necessarily require that people be allowed to send whomever they want to Congress.

If the citizens of the District of Columbia really want to re-elect Marion Barry as mayor, you might conclude that that's their business. If the citizens of South Carolina want to send Strom Thurmond back to the Senate for the 150th time, you might be tempted to say, "Wait a minute. That's my business, too."

But the term limitation idea is anti-democratic in more than the mechanistic sense. At bottom, it is based on the idea that elections are inherently corrupting and the less our leaders have to do with them - raising money, campaigning, bending to interest groups - the better.

Taking the notion at its most high-minded, rather than as a mere partisan ploy, it is reminiscent of the fad that swept through Washington in the late 1970s, at the time of Jimmy Carter's malaise, for a six-year non-renewable presidential term. The concept was the same: We need politicians who don't care about politics.

What we need instead, I think, is citizens who care more about politics. It does seem odd, at first blush, that a majority of Americans reports itself to pollsters as disgusted with Congress and eager to rejigger the Constitution to prevent incumbents from being re-elected, then that same majority goes to the polls and votes overwhelmingly to re-elect the incumbents.

The explanation is that the voters are lazy hypocrites. And on this, as on more important subjects such as federal spending (where everyone is against it in the abstract and for it in the particular), the politicians are pandering to voters' hypocrisy and thereby encourage it.

Despite all the advantages of incumbency, it is still just as easy to vote against the incumbent as to vote for him, if you care enough. The Nicaraguans just gave us an inspiring demonstration.

If, as the term-limiters say, congressional seats have become "personal fiefdoms," it is not because voters have been denied the freedom to vote the bastards out, but because they can't be bothered. Americans don't need and don't deserve another crutch for democracy, another way to express disdain for politics. They've got the Congress they voted for, and if they don't like it, they know what they can do about it.

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