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Escape From the Term-Limits Trap

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, February 19, 1997; Page A21


One should not gloat. But it was a satisfying spectacle to see the latest effort at writing a term-limits provision into the Constitution go down in flames on the House floor last week. It was a triumph of common sense and perhaps a harbinger of a clearer and less jaundiced view of politics and politicians in this land.

The House vote of 217-211 was 69 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for any amendment and 10 votes worse than a comparable roll call in the last Congress. It came amid clear signs of disarray among those who have been promoting this misguided measure.

The most prominent and distinguished of the journalistic advocates has been George F. Will, who used his Newsweek column last week to berate others in the term-limits movement for the supposed sin of insisting on even shorter tenure than Will himself would impose. "Ignorant," "bellicose," "bullying," "fanatics," "a collection of cranks" -- these were just a few of the epithets Will directed at those in the movement who want no House member to serve more than six years, rather than 12, as he and others believe proper.

Will cares little for the views of other term-limits advocates, who make the populist argument that short-term officeholders will be more responsive to the views of their constituents, instead of being seduced by "inside-the-Beltway" notions. Will, on the other hand, has insisted that shortening tenure (to the 12-year limit he prefers) will produce a more "deliberative" Congress, "disposed to think of the next generation, rather than the next election."

But that proposition, like almost every other one underlying the term-limits movement, rests on the illogical assumption that what is true of every other occupation and profession does not apply to politics and government.

If bankers were limited to 12 years in their jobs, for example, would we logically expect that loan policies would become more prudent? Hardly. The knowledge that they won't be around when repayment time comes would probably impel them to gin up the volume of loan approvals and let their successors worry about those that are, in banking jargon, "nonperforming." As Tom Lehrer wrote in his wonderful song about the German-born missile-designer of famously flexible loyalties, "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun."

There are multiple other fallacies in the arguments of term-limits advocates. Many of the proponents, including Will, are conservatives who also assert -- with far more reason -- their concern about the loss of civic-mindedness among our people, the ebbing sense of mutual responsibility. They are right about that. But then to advocate a scheme that would relieve people of the most basic duty of citizenship -- the free choice of those who will represent us -- is mind-boggling.

For more than 200 years now, we have moved people into and out of public office by our votes. Now they would substitute an automatic, effortless, guillotine process that would lop off the careers of the worthy and unworthy alike. And this in the name of an improved republic!

Perhaps this ringing defeat will signal a reappraisal in both the press and the public of the elected officials at whom this "reform" was aimed. The healthy and historic attitude of both journalists and voters toward public officials has been one of skepticism -- but not blanket condemnation. The dominant ideology of the press has been not liberalism or conservatism but progressivism -- the concern to try to "purify" politics by exposing graft by public officials and curbing the influence of interest groups on those officials, especially the abuse of money.

But in recent years the target has shifted from the rotten apples in office and the grosser attempts to buy access and influence to the mere existence of what Will likes to call "the political class." These folks -- a broad enough category to embrace everyone who has gained public office -- are supposed to be so inherently wicked that it is only by removing any incentive for anyone to make government a career that we can curb their ambitions. As Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said in House debate, "We must be the only profession in the world where an indication that your employers are satisfied with your work is taken as an indication that something is wrong."

Of course, there are bad apples. But there are far fewer hacks in Congress than when I first visited Capitol Hill 40 years ago -- and they are bound by a far tougher standard of ethics than exists in most private occupations or businesses, including journalism.

The term-limits movement was an expression of hostility to our system of representative government and the politicians in it. Its failure is good news.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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