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Term Limits: Political Boon or Monstrosity?

US voters made a strong case for term limits on Nov. 3

By Mark P. PetraccaMark P. Petracca is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and has written extensively on rotation in office and the term-limitation movement. / November 27, 1992



ASIDE from Bill Clinton, the other big winner on Nov. 3 was the term-limitation movement. Voters in 14 states, including California, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, passed initiatives limiting terms for their United States representatives and senators.

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This brings to 15 the number of states limiting congressional terms, with Colorado having previously adopted a similar initiative in 1990. Of these states, 13 also limited the terms of their state legislators. Voters in California, Oklahoma, and Colorado did this by initiative in 1990 as well. When the new Congress convenes in 1993, more than 36 percent of House members will be subject to limits on their terms ranging from 6 to 12 years.

To these Nov. 3 victories must also be added to the numerous municipalities approving term limits for city council members, and Rhode Island's approval of term limits for state executive officials. This extraordinary success should provide incontrovertible evidence that American citizens are ready to restore rotation in office to the operating design of political institutions. Not since states acted unilaterally at the turn of the century to begin directly electing their US senators - a movement which cu lminated in the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, has there been as much grass-roots activity from coast to coast directed at constitutional reform.

Yet, while voters were taking decisive action to limit the number of terms a legislator can serve, they were also returning to office many entrenched incumbents. Californians, for example, approved Proposition 164 as well as a large number of municipal term-limit initiatives, yet returned most incumbents to the state Assembly, state Senate, and US House of Representatives. There will be many new faces in the next Congress, but most are the result of retirements, losses in primaries, and redistricting. Vo ters in the other 13 states behaved similarly, proving once again that constituents may love their own legislators but still strongly dislike the legislature.

Some may view such behavior as hypocritical. However, I believe it merely points to the incredible advantages incumbents have over their challengers on election day; thus, making, not contradicting, the case for term limitation.

With 15 states now limiting the terms of state and federal legislators, what's next for the term-limitation express?

First, term-limit petitions are already being circulated in the six remaining states with the initiative power for placement on their ballots in 1993 or 1994: Maine, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Alaska, and Massachusetts. Second, Mississippi voters approved a constitutional amendment providing for an indirect initiative, giving term-limit proponents in that state the means to offer an initiative by 1994. Third, in a number of other states, including New Jersey and South Carolina, term-limit advocates are working

to amend their state constitutions so that initiatives can become a way of circumventing the reluctance of state legislators to adopt term-limit legislation.

By 1994 it is likely that half the states in the US will have adopted term-limit initiatives for both state and federal legislators. Faced with decisive state action, the House and Senate will be compelled to submit a constitutional amendment requiring limits on congressional terms to the states for ratification.

State authority to impose term limits on members of Congress - be it by regulating access to the ballot or by adding a qualification to federal legislative service - is of questionable constitutionality. Strong cases have been made on both sides of the issue. Therefore, it's likely that the constitutionality of one or more of these initiatives will end up in court. However, since none of the initiatives are retroactive, the earliest legislators might be prevented from running for reelection or having the ir names put on ballots would probably be 1998. That is when the shortest of the term-limit initiatives would actually affect any member of Congress elected this year. By then the issue will be moot if Congress has submitted a term-limitation amendment to the states for ratification.

The success of the term-limitation movement provides a reasonable guarantee that Congress will no longer be able to ignore citizen demands for a constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms.

While Arkansas voters helped elect their governor as president, they also adopted an initiative limiting the terms of their state and federal legislators. As part of America's "old covenant" for governing the republic, the restoration of rotation in office would make a very suitable and responsive addition to Mr. Clinton's "new covenant" for political reform.