Dear Uncle Harold:

You'll forgive me for coining a phrase, but a little cable television can be a dangerous thing. Especially when an otherwise-sensible young fellow named Harold watches a late-night talk show up there in Pittsfield. And then, instead of going off to his snuggly bed, he sits down and writes an impassioned letter to his nephew (the one who types for a living).

Seems the Unk has heard some deep TV thinker argue that it's time to limit the number of congressional terms. Seems the Unk is ready to buy the argument.

Seems to me that both of you are out to lunch.

The problem with members of Congress isn't the second term, Harold, or the 22nd. The problem is that 535 members go 535 different ways once they take office. If we limit congressional terms, we only guarantee that no one will be around long enough to learn the job well, or to do it well. The problem on the Hill is effective leadership and disciplined followership. If we get more of both, it won't matter whether Congress is green or gray.

What's wrong with the present leadership? Nothing, really. They're sincere, experienced and well-respected. But they've done little to browbeat the members of their parties into following their lead. Every member of Congress feels free to break ranks over any issue. Members think re-election first, party cohesion second.

Which is pretty strange when you think about it, Harold. After all, it's the political parties that have the big dough -- and are willing to spend it on behalf of incumbents who are in trouble. Would you rather raise half a million bucks nickel by nickel to beat back a challenge, or would you rather make one phone call to your party chairman? In today's climate, with all the uncertainties and the spending limits, that one isn't even close.

Yet we have mostly mavericks on the Hill -- Democrats and Republicans in name only. Would you care to explain the difference between a moderate Republican and a conservative Democrat? The joke here, Harold, is that the former gets a Christmas card from George, Barbara and Millie, and the latter gets an invitation to the latest Peter, Paul and Mary reunion concert. Otherwise, el same-o.

I hate to sound nostalgic (that's usually your specialty, Unk), but Washington worked better under the seniority system. Yes, that system often institutionalized incompetence. But it provided smoother sailing for a lot of deserving legislation, especially when the need was greatest. If the majority leader told a committee chairman that the country needed Bill A to pass, it would pass. It wouldn't be nibbled at and fiddled with every step of the way by every self-appointed savior.

In one way, this Limiting-the-terms debate is pure hot air. If the people want to return someone to office, the people have to have that right. Besides, if the people want to throw out the old coots, they'd better realize that they'd be throwing out a lot of valuable experience along with all that sludge they claim to hate so much.

And where would you draw the line? Are five terms all right and six too many? Next problem: what would a Congressman do once his set number of terms was up? I'll tell you what he'd do, Harold. He'd become a lobbyist.

Just what we need around here, Unk. Another few hundred former Congressmen clogging the cloakrooms. And what kind of performance do you think you'd get out of a member of Congress in the last 18 months of his last term? Rotten is the answer -- because he'd be doing nothing but looking for a lucrative landing place on K Street. This is good government?

Whenever I talk to members of Congress, Harold, I hear two subjects over and over: how little time there is, and how critical campaign dollars have become. If you set a maximum number of terms, you will only make both problems worse.

A member of Congress who knows he has 10 years to serve at most will rarely accomplish anything lasting. Tip O'Neill used to say that it took him 20 years to learn his job, and he had more talent than most. Can an average member learn sub-Saharan Africa, or tax policy and the elderly, in half that time? Not bloody likely.

Meanwhile, more challengers would be scouting for more money -- and spending more. It's bad enough that a routine challenge to a member of Congress now costs $250,000. How large do you think that cost would be if an insurgent began to campaign against an incumbent four years before the end of the incumbent's term, or six?

Where would the money come from? The same old special interests, Harold. That doesn't strike me as progress. And if Congress contains 535 Joe Blows who are always students but never professors, the President would be even more visible and dominant than he is already.

So, Unk, if you insist on late-night TV, why not a football game on ESPN? At least they fumble only once in a while.

Your Loving Nephew,

Bob