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Why We'd Lose With Term Limits

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, February 9, 1994; Page A23


One of the problems facing opponents of term limits for legislatures and Congress is that few people outside those bodies understand how they really work. Moving legislation is one of the most arduous, exacting tasks imaginable. It requires knowledge of the issues, but even more, a keen judgment of individuals. The skilled legislator can find areas of compromise among seemingly intractable foes. He or she can also sense when concessions must stop and the question be put to a vote.

All this takes experience -- the one commodity that the term-limits advocates are determined to eliminate from legislative bodies. A couple of items have crossed my desk in the last few days which suggest how much that commodity will be missed.

The first is an article in the February issue of Harper's magazine by Douglas Foster, a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford. He hung out last year in Sacramento to observe the effect of the term-limits measure that California voters imposed in 1990. He focused on the brilliant and controversial Assembly speaker, Willie Brown. Along with many other veterans, Brown will be forced to step down after one more term, vacating what may well be the single most powerful position in American government held by an African American. He was a fierce opponent of term limits and also, in a real sense, the principal target of the California referendum.

Foster shows him at work on the issue of illegal immigration, which has become the scapegoat for the frustration bred by the worst economic slump California has seen since the Great Depression. Brown told his colleagues at one meeting that "if you wanted to open a concentration camp" for illegals, "some would say, 'Okay.' " As Foster watched, the speaker assembled a cross-section of Democratic legislators -- blacks, Latinos, liberal and conservative whites -- and forced through an agreement on a package of bills that would ease the political pressure on the immigration issue without giving in to the most extreme sentiment.

Foster observes: "The kind of reflexive, moderating influence Brown brought to bear on the immigration debate was once considered an integral part of a political leader's calling. But Brown's intervention was also precisely the kind of interference -- some might call it gridlock -- that term-limits supporters intended to eliminate. The term-limits measure was designed to create a system in which short-loop responsiveness becomes the highest political virtue."

That, of course, is exactly what the authors of the Constitution, schooled in the dangers of instant majority rule, set out to prevent with their system of checks and balances. But we live in an age of instant communication, which feeds a desire for instant political gratification. If term limits become the norm, as seems likely, we will soon enough experience what untempered, poll-driven government means.

What we will lose is not only judgment and caution but the instinct to rise above short-term pressures and do what is right -- a reflex that is found far more often than term-limits advocates seem to understand in veteran legislators. Consider, for example, the story that Sen. Alan Simpson told in a tribute on the Senate floor to the late Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr.

Simpson is a conservative Wyoming Republican; O'Neill was a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. An unlikelier partnership would be hard to imagine. But a decade ago, an immigration reform bill Simpson had passed through the Senate was stymied in the House. So he called the speaker and said, "I would like to visit with you; no staff, just me."

"Come on over, cowboy," O'Neill said. When Simpson arrived, O'Neill said, "Tell me what this turkey is. . . . Teach me."

After half an hour, O'Neill called in his staffer, Ari Weiss, a man the conservative senator found to be "one of the most unique and brilliant staff persons I have known. Of course," he added, "that was the type of person Tip surrounded himself with."

O'Neill told Weiss and Simpson he wanted to move the immigration bill, but the political pressures demanded secrecy. It was the 1984 election year. Democratic nominee Walter Mondale was trying to finesse the issue, which split key Democratic voting blocs. The last thing he wanted was a House vote before Election Day. O'Neill gave Simpson the early October date on which he would call up the bill, but warned him, "I don't want you to say a single word about it to anyone. And if you do, and I hear about it, you will never see that bill again."

Simpson kept his mouth shut, and on the promised date, just before adjournment, O'Neill called up the bill -- setting off a storm of protest from his fellow Democrats. The bill was defeated that year, but the debate set the stage for its passage in the next Congress. As Simpson said, "The promise was made and the promise was kept, and from that came a truly rich relationship."

Legislatures need such relationships that build trust between members of opposite parties and philosophies. They need people with enough experience and guts to provide leadership that looks beyond the political pressures and public resentments of the moment. The term-limits advocates are determined to strip Congress and the legislatures of such people.

They know not what they do.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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