One-Term-Only Mexican Congress Has Lesson for US

LIMITING the terms of legislators is a hot issue in the United States. It should be in Mexico, too. The change, however, should be in the opposite direction.

For historical reasons, Mexico now has the ultimate in term limits: There is absolutely no reelection. Congressmen have three years in office and senators have six, until they have been out of office for at least one term. The concept is so ingrained in the Mexican political psyche that on all government stationery the following slogan is printed: ``Sufragio efectivo, no reeleccion'' or ``Valid votes, no reelection.'' The ``valid votes'' part is just beginning to be realized, but the ``no reelection'' half has been operative and surprisingly respected for more than 65 years.

From 1880 to 1910, Gen. Porfirio Diaz constantly got himself reelected to the Mexican presidency. From a respected hero, he became a hated dictator - to the extent that ``no reelection'' became one of the main rallying cries of the reformers who wrote the 1917 Constitution in the middle of the Mexican Revolution.

In evaluating this Mexican phenomenon, the conclusion has to be drawn that in the legislative arena, ``no reelection'' has done more harm than good. Democracy has suffered terribly in several ways.

To begin with, no elected official is truly responsible to his or her constituents. In the almost 23 years I have lived in Mexico with my Mexican wife, we have never - not once - received any communication from our congressman or senator. Yes, I realize how annoyed many Americans are with all the mail that they receive from their representatives. Instead of feeling irritated, they should be grateful that they are being informed and asked for their opinions.

Why don't Mexican congressmen write the voters? Why should they bother? If they can't be reelected, what obligations do they have to them? Plenty, ideally, but not without the incentive of knowing that if they represent well, they can continue to serve.

When the voters are not contacted by their representatives, an unhealthy apathy toward government develops. No one can argue that the average Mexican's indifference to the legislature isn't deserved. The legislature gets no respect for good reasons. It has been a rubber stamp for executive proposals. But if little loyalty is given to the voters, allegiance and faithfulness are certainly owed to the chief executive.

In Mexico, there has been one-party rule (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) for almost 66 years. The president is the de facto head of the party and all major appointments and nominations go through him. A PRI congressman - whose election is usually a mere formality - owes his nomination to the president. And he will owe all future government jobs to which he might aspire to top PRI officials, too. That being the case, what incentives are there to object to legislative proposals sent over from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House?

The most glaring inadequacy of the Mexican legislature, however, is its lack of expertise. It takes time and continuity to develop competency in any field. It is completely unrealistic to expect the present wholly new legislature, all of whose members took office only last month, to do a decent job of reviewing, revising, and passing the 1995 Mexican budget - a task it is attempting to tackle at this moment. The US Founding Fathers might not have envisioned professional politicians, but to be perfectly honest, good career politicians - in any country - are what is most needed.

Right now, ``no reelection'' is a sacred cow in Mexico. It shouldn't be. Not when Mexican congressmen are being paid about $76,000 a year - tax free!

The United States should take a hard look at the Mexican example and ask itself: If you limit a senator to two terms, to whom will his loyalty be in his last six years in office - his constituents or an industry from which he has job prospects? It you have a congressman who has had long, hard training and has finally become an expert in dissecting federal fiscal matters (and represents his district well in other areas, too), should he be thrown out automatically when he might be reaching the peak years of his public service? If the electoral advantages of incumbency are due mostly to inadequate campaign financing laws (which is analogous to the Mexican situation where the TV monopoly unfairly sides with the PRI), isn't it illogical to tamper with the US electoral process?

While revising the fundamental process might be in order in Mexico, fixing the details of the present system seems to be what's needed in the United States. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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