The roar of American voters angry with professional politicians dominating legislative bodies had been muffled by the people who run the government and their news media partners until it broke through in Oklahoma last Tuesday.
Oklahomans voted for a 12-year limit on terms in the state legislature by a 67 percent majority. No surprise. Support for limiting legislative terms -- especially for the U.S. Congress -- shows a similar level of strength in national and state polls. Anybody who breathes the political air beyond the Washington Beltway will find at least that much backing for limiting terms in just talking to ordinary people.
This is the people's veto: Americans expressing intense displeasure with the caliber of service they have been getting from increasingly expensive, often arrogant lawmakers. The claim of the Washington establishment that the republic cannot do without these hoary veterans who have brought the federal government to its present state is rejected by voters. For most of them, even 12 years is too long.
Their popular desires have run into a stacked bipartisan deck. Just as Republicans and Democrats in the House have entered into a collusive agreement not to criticize each other's incumbent congressmen for voting huge pay increases, they team up against term-limitation efforts. No person living today is likely to see the Constitution amended to limit congressional terms.
But an escape hatch can be seen on the western horizon. Following Oklahoma's lead, California and Colorado will each offer voters on Nov. 6 a ballot proposition limiting legislative terms. It is Colorado that offers a way out. Its proposal also would set 12-year limits on the state's members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Is this constitutional? "Maybe yes, maybe no," its chief sponsor, Colorado state Sen. Terry Considine, told us. "There are precedents for state actions on election of senators. Anyway, other states will follow us, and the message will be clear."
That suggests a rolling tide of public opinion crashing against the government's revetments. A new nationwide poll (2,500 interviews) done for the National Republican Congressional Committee by the Market Research Institute shows 62 percent approval, 25 percent disapproval for congressional term limitations.
In California, where powerful Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is leading the attack against an eight-year limit on the state's legislative terms, Market Opinion Research shows 65 percent approval, 31 percent disapproval.
What's more, it is one of Washington's best kept secrets that term limitations were written into the Republican Party's 1988 national platform by the convention that nominated George Bush. They have been a pet idea of the party's ailing national chairman, Lee Atwater. Such high-grade Republican operatives as Charles Black and Ed Rollins see the limits as not only a widely popular issue but the only plausible route for dislodging Democrats from control of Congress.
Silence from Republicans on what ought to be their natural issue, then, is puzzling. It represents in part the pressure of the incumbent GOP minority in Congress, but it also stems from the shared mind-set of a government class that knows no partisan divisions. The arguments voiced by senior figures in the White House and at the Republican National Committee parrot their Democratic counterparts.
They propagate the myth that serving in Congress involves a long-term rite of special expertise. An outsider can come to Washington and run the Pentagon or the Treasury, but only a lifer can master the intricacies of constituency service.
While eight years is an extraordinarily long tenure for a Cabinet member, House members hang around endlessly: Jamie Whitten of Mississippi (50 years), Charles Bennett of Florida (42), Sidney Yates of Illinois (40), Jack Brooks of Texas and William Natcher of Kentucky (38).
Just as people intuitively put their judgment ahead of the government class in demanding tax reductions a decade ago, they now persist in their belief that improved government would benefit from a legislative branch regularly turning over its personnel. The instinct of ordinary voters overwhelmingly rejects domination over by Congress by professionals who serve virtual life terms under an electoral system that has grown corrupt.
That was the message from Oklahoma, expected to be repeated in California and Colorado in November. Similar reform has started in 19 other states, a popular revolution that can be ignored no longer.
The people agree with the sentiments expressed by Harry Truman more than 40 years ago when he called for a 12-year limit for congressmen that would "help cure senility and seniority -- both terrible legislative diseases."