Term Limits Special Report
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By George F. Will
Sunday, April 21, 1996; Page C07


Anticipating this week's Senate debate on a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on senators and representatives, Cleta Mitchell, the former Democratic state legislator from Oklahoma who is the George Patton of the term-limits movement, made some suggestions to Haley Barbour, Republican national chairman, including this one concerning Bob Dole: "He badly needs to get comfortable with this issue so he can talk about it without grimacing and explaining all the reasons why he hates it."

Barbour, although a man of many parts, is a politician, not a magician, so he will be unable to make Dole seem to enjoy eating his spinach. The last two Republican platforms endorsed term limits and so will the one Dole runs on, and he endorses the amendment. However, he has an agreeable incapacity for sustained insincerity, and is hilariously unconvincing -- his body language alone refutes his spoken language -- when he says he favors term limits.

A January poll by the Tarrance Group shows that 77 percent of Americans favor term limits (59 percent "strongly support" limits; only 17 percent oppose, only 9 percent "strongly" oppose). Limits are supported in all regions and by both sexes and by blacks and Hispanics. However, the amendment will fall far short of the two-thirds support (67 votes) needed to send it to the states for ratification debates. Hence the following paradox of the term-limits movement.

The strongest argument for limits is not the common one about making Congress "closer to the people" so it can be more "responsive." Congress is too close; it is too responsive to organized, clamorous appetites. It is because careerism is the dominant motive of most legislators. By removing that motive, term limits would make Congress less subservient to public opinion and more deliberative.

Yet in what one conspicuous particular does the political class resist opinion? In opposition to term limits. That class will take a politically risky position when the alternative is the certainty of career limits on that class.

Can you think of anything else in modern American experience that has enjoyed such broad, protracted and adamant public support as term limits, and that Congress, which jumps through hoops for innumerable little lobbies, has refused to grant? And all Congress is being asked to grant is the possibility of 50 state debates about ratification.

The term-limits movement's motive in insisting on this week's vote is to establish a benchmark for measuring subsequent progress in what will be a long campaign. Here are the basic numbers, beginning with ol' number one -- W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel.

O'Daniel, a Texas radio announcer and salesman for Light Crust Flour and songwriter ("The Boy Who Never Grew Too Old to Comb His Mother's Hair"), got elected governor in 1938 and U.S. senator in 1941 (defeating, among others, a whippersnapper of a congressman named Lyndon Johnson). In 1947, when Congress was debating the 22nd Amendment that imposed term limits on presidents, O'Daniel proposed limits for all elective officials.

His proposal, the first and until now the only Senate vote on term limits, lost 82-1. And there will be no vote this week because Democrats, probably with the secret gratitude of many Republicans, are using parliamentary procedures to prevent one.

Last year there was a debate on an inconsequential sense of the Senate resolution calling for a vote on term limits. A motion to table the resolution passed 49-45. From that flimsy evidence some supporters of term limits conclude, almost certainly too optimistically, that their base vote is 45. This year there will be only a cloture vote on shutting off debate to get to a straight vote on term limits.

There will not be the necessary 60 votes for cloture. Pappy O'Daniel's vote will still be the only Senate vote cast for term limits, which fact is a tribute to the tenacity of the political class.

Nineteen Democrats oppose term limits even though they represent states where voters have approved term limits. Probably only four of the Senate's 47 Democrats support the amendment. All 17 Democratic senators who will be up for reelection in 1998 oppose term limits. But Democrats in Congress suffer little for their opposition, largely because most Republicans in Congress actually are part of the problem.

In fact, many of them, sharing the Democrats' opposition to term limits but lacking the Democrats' forthrightness, deserve to suffer more because they are deceiving the country about a principle of constitutional dimensions. They have not hammered term limits home as a defining principle of their party because they come to the issue the way they go to the dentist -- as rarely as possible, and only as a painful duty.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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