THE D.C. Council's Government Operations Committee has touched on a chord of rising national sentiment, passing legislation on to the full council that would limit mayors to two consecutive terms and council members to three. Political analysts have argued against such limitations on members of Congress, claiming that the sacrifice of experience and judgment would be too great and that both houses would be stripped of expertise and institutional memory. But a recent national survey by this newspaper and ABC News showed that voters felt new faces and new ideas were more important in Congress than experience. Oklahoma voters recently approved 12-year limits on state legislators, and similar measures are on the November ballot in California and Colorado.
But was the local move a sincere attempt by council members to open up the political process for all, an effort to limit the chances of tired and potentially corrupt politicians in each of the city's highest elected offices? Maybe, and maybe not.
At first council member Frank Smith sought only to limit the mayor to two terms, with no limits on council members. Council member Nadine Winter, who was recently defeated in an effort to win her fifth straight term, no less, tacked on an amendment to limit council members and, by association, her eventual successor, to two terms. Well, shouldn't we hold a public hearing on this first?, three council members then asked. It was a valid question, but council member John Ray argued for limiting council members to three terms. That was easier to accept, and it passed, with committee chair Betty Ann Kane the only member voting no.
Lost in all of this, by the way, was an explanation of why council members are less susceptible than mayors to the problems of longtime service, and more deserving of the chance to serve for three straight terms. At present, the distinction escapes us.
The idea of term limits for D.C. mayors and council members has some enormous and perhaps insurmountable problems, but it is worthy of consideration by the full council. It follows council action to curtail Mayor Marion Barry's capacity (but not that of the next mayor) to enter into large contracts without council approval in the last days of his administration. The debate should also include alternatives such as changes in campaign finance rules that could limit the systemic advantages of incumbency. The views of local voters must also be sought in public hearings before the council passes judgment in this important matter.