CHICAGO -- In 1978, the vote on Proposition 13, a California tax-limitation initiative, ushered in a revolt against big government that shaped the politics of the '80s. On Tuesday, a vote on an Oklahoma term-limitation initiative is likely to signal a revolt against tenured government that could shake up the politics of the '90s.
Polls indicate overwhelming public support for the measure on the Oklahoma runoff primary ballot. It would limit anyone to 12 years of service in the state House and Senate. Similar measures will be on the ballots of California and Colorado in November. Polls there show them favored by more than two-thirds of the voters.
Supporters of the measures are talking about pushing such proposals in a dozen other states by 1992 -- and are aiming at limiting congressional tenure as well.
The movement is a product -- and symptom -- of growing public disillusionment with politics as usual. Interviewing voters in barometer precincts here after Labor Day, I heard a dozen variants of the complaint that: "It doesn't matter who you vote for. Once they're in office, they forget about the promises they've made and the people who elected them."
A national survey by The Post and ABC News this month asked voters whether they thought it more important to "keep experienced people in the House and Senate" or to "elect new people with fresh ideas." Seven out of 10 chose new faces over experience. Democrats, whose party controls Congress, were just as eager as Republicans to shuffle the deck.
That same 70 percent support seems possible and even likely for the term-limitation measures in the three states voting this fall. While the support is broad and nonpartisan, the impetus for term limitation comes from people in the business world -- both mavericks and establishment types -- who are frustrated in their desire to cut spending and regulation by government.
Lloyd Noble II, the Tulsa oil-and-gas man who is financing the Oklahoma initiative, told me he believes that "the waste in almost all aspects of Oklahoma government is horrible, because the politicians won't cut anything in their own districts that helps them get reelected."
Lewis K. Uhler, backer of one of the two California term-limit propositions, is president of the National Tax Limitation Committee. The Free Congress Foundation, another conservative group, is coordinating the effort at the national level. It played host at a recent Washington appearance by state senator Terry Considine (R), the sponsor of the Colorado initiative. Considine, an entrepreneur whose interests range from environmental labs to gas stations, has served in the Colorado legislature for three years, just long enough to convince him that no one should serve more than eight.
Considine is a persuasive fellow who says he wants to improve government, not just dismantle it. Although he has been a GOP activist and fund-raiser for many years, his motivation cannot be dismissed as purely partisan. As he points out, his party has a solid hold on both houses of the Colorado legislature. The toughest critic of his initiative is the top Republican in the legislature, veteran state Senate President Ted Strickland.
Considine says he is convinced that term limits will encourage better people to seek office and pave the way for passage of other reforms -- including steps to make legislative and congressional districts more competitive and reduce incumbents' advantages in financing their campaigns.
Personally, I think he and the other term-limitation people have got the cart before the horse. What we need are competitive elections, not arbitrary limits on service. I think the unintended consequence of term limits will be to increase the power of unelected officials -- legislative staffs and executive branch bureaucrats. Their expertise will become even more influential when the elected officials are all short-timers, and their arrogance will grow.
But that kind of argument is not going to slow this freight train. The incumbents at both state and national levels are too obviously guilty of feathering their own nests for the public to see that it really has a stake in keeping some of them on the job for more than a few years. The incumbents have drawn districts that protect them from challenge. They have collected extravagant campaign contributions from the lobbyists who must come to them for help. And they have expanded the perquisites of office -- their taxpayer-financed staffs and communications -- to such a level that they are virtually guaranteed reelection as long as they want the job.
No one can defend a system where 98 percent of the incumbents seeking reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives win year after year. No one can defend the Colorado status quo, where, Considine says, no incumbent elected governor has lost since 1962, and no incumbent state senator has been defeated in eight years.
If the incumbents don't recognize the need to permit their challengers to compete on more equal terms, their tenure will almost certainly be reduced by arbitrary term limits. And those term limits will eliminate the able and talented right along with the phonies and the hacks.
And this country will be the loser.