Term Limits? Got 'Em

WHEN the House debates term limits on Congress next week, Republicans will likely be the victims of their own November success.

During the campaign, they railed against longtime Democratic incumbents. These Democrats were the jaded power brokers who controlled Congress. They were dominated by special interests and they prevented reforms. Bolstered by the advantages of office, they were unbeatable at the polls. The only answer was to impose term limits, which would sweep the capital city clean of bad old insiders on a regular basis.

The idea tested so well in polls of potential voters that House Republicans put a term-limits constitutional amendment into their Contract With America. It was a great campaign theme.

But now, after a huge success at the polls, they are stuck with a dilemma: They must try to pass an amendment that even many Republicans don't think is necessary.

Want to get rid of prominent, long-time Democrats? The Republicans already netted the biggest fish last fall, House Speaker Thomas Foley. And he was hardly alone. In Iowa, for example, Greg Ganske (R) ousted 36-year veteran Neal Smith (D). Mr. Ganske drove around the district campaigning in a 1958 DeSoto, built the same year Mr. Smith went to Washington. Voters got the idea.

You want widespread change? In the last two elections, 1992 and 1994, Congress has seated 199 new members. That's a considerable turnover. At that rate, by 1999 most of Congress will have served six years or less.

And those powerful chairmen? Voters elected a new Republican majority with a whole new slate of chairmen. And the new House leadership, to its credit, followed up by abolishing seniority as the criterion for chairmanships and imposing a six-year limit on service.

If, as expected, no version of a term-limits constitutional amendment (which requires a two-thirds majority) passes the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich may dive for political cover and try to pass a term-limits bill that would require only a majority vote. But, lacking constitutional authority, such a measure might not stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny. We'll know more after the Court rules on state-imposed limits by June.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders must decide how to ''play'' a potentially divisive issue for their party, which is a victim of its own unexpected success.

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