New Cast of Legislators

REGARDLESS of who wins the presidential election, 1992 will be remembered as a year that reshaped the American political landscape. For confirmation of that, voters won't have to look farther than their congressional delegations and state legislatures.

A remarkable changing of the guard is about to take place in Congress. Retirements, redistricting, and anti-incumbent feelings are combining to install new occupants in up to a quarter of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.

It's not clear what new agendas these freshman lawmakers may bring to Washington - all, however, will have a passionate interest in change.

The partisan makeup of the House is not likely to be as altered as Republicans had hoped back when the Gulf war victory pointed to a GOP triumph. Recent surveys indicate that the Democratic edge might even widen slightly, thanks to the triumph of the economy over all other issues.

The indelible impression left on tomorrow's victors - whether presidential, congressional, Republican, or Democratic - will be of a public insistent that something be done to revive the economy. Economists may argue that forces largely beyond the control of politicians - credit flows, markets, entrepreneurial energy - are already starting to do this job. But a laissez-faire approach to recovery won't play well in Washington next year, even if the GOP does better than anticipated.

The economic imperative will be no less dominant among state lawmakers, many of whom will have to deal with fiscal crises next year. The total of financial reserves available to state governments, a measure of their fiscal elbow room, has sunk to a 15-year low, according to the National Governors' Association. The outlook for expanded revenue in the year ahead is dim.

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that at least one-fifth of the country's 7,461 legislators will be replaced. Some states will have even larger turnover: California, for example, will wave goodbye to 36 percent of its current lawmakers.

Voters in 14 states may go beyond this extraordinary "natural" turnover to approve initiatives that limit the terms of local and national legislators. These measures have wide public support and little opposition from office-holders wary of taking on anti-incumbent forces.

That's troubling for at least three reasons: Term limits are a quick-fix substitute for more meaningful campaign reform; they sell short the public's right to vote in or out whomever it wants; and, as applied to Congress, they may violate the constitutionally established qualifications for office.

Nonetheless, term limits evidence a deep desire to break through governmental logjams and money-driven politics. Finding more constructive ways to respond to that desire should be a prime objective for the incoming class of incumbents.

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