Capping Congress

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FRUSTRATED by what they regard as a Congress unresponsive to national needs and peopled by tenured incumbents who are manipulated by free-spending lobbyists, some critics think they've found a way to give Congress back to the people. They want a constitutional amendment limiting service to 12 years - six terms for a representative, two for a senator. The idea even has a champion inside the Capitol: retiring Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, who thinks the addictiveness of office causes lawmakers to become politically timid and beholden to special interests. According to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of the public favor limiting the terms of legislators.

Is this an idea whose time has come? No.

Current campaign techniques and campaign-finance laws unquestionably favor incumbents. But the solution is to make campaigns more competitive, not arbitrarily to oust seat-holders after a few years.

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In a democracy, people should be able to vote for the representatives of their choice. It's a myth that incumbents retain power despite voter dissatisfaction. Studies show that constituents are generally pleased with the performance, accessibility, and responsiveness of their representatives.

It's also a myth that Everycitizen can go to Washington and serve effectively for a spell. Governing is no more for dilettantes than is piloting a jumbo jet. What congressional problems would be solved by expelling such knowledgeable lawmakers as Robert Dole or Sam Nunn, Tom Foley or Bob Michel?

The chief effect would be further to turn congressional power over from elected officials to unelected staff members, who alone would be the keepers of institutional memory.

The turnover rate in Congress is often overlooked. As lawmakers retired or sought higher office, a host of new faces appeared on Capitol Hill in the '80s.

The answer to 98 percent incumbent-reelection rates isn't a quick fix that would hamstring Congress in doing the public's business.

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