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The Improving Case for Term Limits

By George F. Will
Thursday, June 18, 1992; Page A23


The specter of a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets no longer haunts Washington. The amendment has been defeated; the status quo is safe.

And it is altogether appropriate that more than the nine-vote margin of defeat (the vote was 280 to 153 in favor of it, but short of the two-thirds required) was provided by 12 Democrats who cosponsored the amendment and then opposed it. They gave their written words, which were worthless.

If you do not mind being fed fibs and dissimulations by people whose deceits presuppose you are dim-witted, the arguments of the opponents of the amendment were entertaining. The opponents in Congress, and their allies in the public employees unions, the American Association of Retired Persons, the Conference of Mayors and many other factions interested in increasing government spending, said they were worried that the amendment wouldn't work. Yes, they were up in arms against the amendment because they thought it would be impotent.

The opponents also said the amendment was an evasion of duty, an excuse for not making "tough choices" to reduce the deficit right now. You see, the public employees unions, mayors, AARP and the rest just can't wait to get started.

Congressional opponents of the amendment said: We so love the Constitution, we cannot bear to injure it with an amendment that Congress -- we -- would ignore or evade. They said that if Congress lacks the "courage" for those "tough choices," no amendment will create courage. So much for the oath they take, swearing to uphold the Constitution.

Why would obeying the amended Constitution require stupendous, superhuman, not-to-be-asked courage? Because balancing the budget would require decisions (raising taxes, cutting spending) inconvenient for the primary business of today's Congress: incumbency protection.

There are just two things that three-fourths of the American people want that Congress will not permit. One is a balanced budget amendment, the other is term limits for legislators. These are anathema to Congress because careerism is the shared creed of Democrans and Republicrats, and deficit spending -- burdening future voters to buy today's voters -- is the key to careerism.

A balanced budget amendment would be much less necessary if Congress's culture of spending were changed by term limits, which would change the motives and behavior of legislators. A term limitation amendment is currently bottled up in the hostile House Judiciary Committee, chaired by 20-term Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat. Opponents of term limits say they oppose limits because they are "undemocratic." Opponents so love democracy they will not allow a vote on limits.

Many congressional candidates -- aspiring careerists now clawing their way toward Congress -- are courting voters by endorsing term limits. But if they get here and are asked to help pry the amendment from the grip of the Judiciary Committee (a discharge petition requires 218 signatures), many of them probably will do what the dirty dozen cosponsors of the balanced budget amendment did: They will say they were just kidding.

The Washington Post and the New York Times and other thunderers against the balanced budget amendment deplore the fact that the public's strongest political passion is taxaphobia. But that passion is the public's judgment on the competence and motives of the careerists who dominate Congress and whose purpose for misallocating resources is reelection.

There are sensible people who think government revenues should be a larger portion of GNP, and sensible people who say they should be less, and sensible people who think the current portion is about right. But no sensible person defends the pattern of current spending, which is a result of reelection rationales. Hitherto I have said government needs more revenues. Now my position is: No tax increase of any sort, or any size, for any purpose -- not one nickel -- until term limitation has ended the careerism that depends on deficit spending.

Rep. Vin Weber, the Minnesota Republican who is leaving Congress at age 39, says he has read a lot of the campaign literature of Republican candidates who may be coming to Congress in January, and he is depressed. The candidates are running on promises not to cash checks at a bank that no longer exists, not to use the House gym or barbershop and to give their parking places to homeless families.

But of course. Such candidates, like many of the current members of Congress, do not want to do something, they just want to be something: incumbents, forever.

With the help of deficit spending, many of them will be. And government's reputation will continue to plummet. And The Post and the New York Times and other sad liberals will wonder why the public is so tightfisted.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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