The opinion polls suggest that the majority of the American public looks favorably on the idea of limiting the terms of congressmen to a total of 12 years -- two terms for senators, six terms for members of the House. Congressmen, obviously, are much less enthusiastic about the idea. So, interestingly enough, are most independent political scientists who can claim some expertise on the subject of Congress.

I myself have tended to defer to the opinion of these knowledgeable political scientists. But more recently I have become uneasy. Can it be that the popular intuition, regardless of the simplemindedness with which it is expressed, is the superior wisdom?

There are basically two arguments in favor of the status quo. The first is that it makes no sense to deprive ourselves of the services of congressmen who, over a period of time, demonstrate great ability, achieve the respect of their peers as well as of the media, and reveal exceptional skills at making the legislative process work effectively.

The second argument hangs upon the ever increasing complexity of congressional work, and the long period it takes for a member to acquire a proper expertise with regard, say, to the budget, or military expenditures, or Social Security. Even a first-class social scientist, with far more leisure than a congressman has, cannot hope to master the intricacies of these matters in less than three or four years. Does it make sense to entrust such programs to congressional committees dominated by newly elected novices?

Both arguments have considerable force, which is why so many intelligent and disinterested people are persuaded by them. But I have to say that, after spending the past three years in Washington and observing Congress at close hand, I no longer find them all that persuasive.

To begin with, there is the fact that a limitation on years in office would deprive us of the services not only of many good congressmen but also of many who are less than good, as well as some who are positively awful. The ability to be reelected again and again is not always -- alas! -- an endorsement of congressional merit. We are all well aware, by now, of the immense advantages of incumbency that congressmen have quite deliberately acquired.

If one were to make four lists of long-serving congressmen who are (a) good, (b) nondescript, (c) poor and (d) awful, where would the balance lie? I really do not know enough about all our congressmen to compile such lists, but my strong impression is that the (a) list would be very much in the minority.

It may be said, by way of rejoinder, that the (a) list would consist of more influential congressmen than the others. Perhaps so -- but is it not the case that their influence derives from being clever and experienced enough to satisfy the views and appetites of the (b), (c), and (d) lists? If this is the case, as I suspect it is, then their presence is not nearly so crucial to good government as one might think.

As for the time needed to achieve a mastery of complex legislative issues -- well, then the question arises: Why are they so complex? Need they be so complex? Is it not possible that veteran congressmen, addressing such issues term after term, have an interest in making them so complex? Does their "mastery" then not add to their prestige and assist in their electability?

It would be perfectly natural if some such process were at work. And it would be naive to deny that it is at work. To be "master" of a complex issue is to be in a very strong position vis-a`-vis lobbyists of all kinds, potential financial contributors, and those "public interest" groups that have to learn to negotiate with you. It gives you power and prominence, whether at the national or regional or local level, that helps ensure your reelection.

It is my impression that the American people sense all this and are more than a little disgusted with it. They would like a Congress which, if more "amateurish," nevertheless had less of a stake in the existing system. Above all, they would like a Congress that is in "closer touch" with the American people -- and nothing can guarantee that more firmly than the certainty that after 12 years, a congressman would return to the "real world." If that's the world he is going to inhabit, he is likely to regard it more respectfully and be less manipulative in his relations with it.

Congress, today, is not in good repute with the American public. A 12-year limitation may be the price we have to pay for reviving its reputation. And, all in all, it may not be much of a price.

The writer is editor of The Public Interest.