American voters believe that holding high political office should represent a period of public service, not a career.

When the Gallup Poll recently offered two proposals to the public that would limit the tenure of U.S. senators and representatives to 12 years, it found 2-to-1 support for such limitations.

Specifically, a proposal to limit senators to two six-year terms receives the approval of 61 percent, with 32 percent disapproving. A proposal to restrict service in the House of Representatives to three terms of four years each is favored by 59 percent of the public, with 32 percent opposed.

These proposals last were put to the public for a vote in 1977. Despite dramatic changes in the political composition of both houses of Congress, with the republicans now holding a majority in the Senate and picking up 48 House seats in last November's election, public opinion has not varied significantly since 1977.

The same degree of support for the proposals is found in all population groups, including partisans of the major political entities. For example, 63 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents vote in favor of the Senate limitation. Similarly, the opinions of college-educated persons are the same as those with less formal education.

The plan to limit senators to two terms of six years each has been advocated by at least two presidents: Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ike once said, "If senators were limited to two terms of six years, each man so serving would tend to think of his congressional career as an important and exciting interlude in his life, a period dedicated to the entire public, rather than as as way of making a living, or making a career of exercising continuous political power. Possibly, each would spend less time keeping his eyes on the next election, and more in centering them on the good of the nation. A more rapid turnover in the membership of both houses, with its constant infusion of new blood, would largely eliminate the 'career politician' in Congress."

The chief opposition to a two-term limitation comes from those who feel that it would shorten the tenure of many senators who have had distinguished careers in government, and that government today is so complex that it takes many years for a senator to familiarize himself with the legislative process.

As reported recently, a majority of the public endorses extending the term of office of House members from two to four years.

Although Americans consistently have rejected the idea of one six-year term for presidents, their views on a two-term limit shifted sharply. In the late 1930s, survey evidence showed that a majority of the public was opposed to a two-term limit. By 1943, however, majority opinion had shifted in support of this limit, with subsequent surveys continuing to show widespread support.