Term Limits Had Its Day

PUNCH up ''vote on term limits'' on your Contract scorecard, Mr. Speaker. Done that. Mission accomplished. Now let's get on with the people's business.

Supporters of congressional term limits got what they've been asking for -- and what the House Republican Contract With America promised -- on Wednesday. Not one, but four versions of term limits were debated and voted on in the House, a historic first. None came anywhere close to passage.

Speaker Newt Gingrich and the House leadership watched as some of the most impassioned pleas in opposition came from fellow Republicans.

A speech by Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of New York, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in particular slam-dunked limits, calling them ''the dumbing-down of democracy.'' They would force knowledgeable, capable legislators to retire just when their maturity and experience are needed most, Mr. Hyde said. ''New is always better? What in the world is conservative about that? Have we nothing to learn from the past?'' he asked, exposing term limits as a populist, but not necessarily conservative, notion.

It's true that 12-year limits on members, the most popular of the defeated amendments, wouldn't cause the downfall of the Republic. And they might pluck out a bad apple from time to time. But they are hardly the best way to attack the problem of special-interest influence and the unfair advantages of incumbents in elections. As another Republican, Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, said, term limits are ''the lazy man's excuse for what's wrong with Congress.''

Before resorting to term limits, everything else should be tried first. It hasn't been. Legislators should take up and enact campaign-finance and lobbying reforms, such as those proposed by groups like Common Cause. They would help ensure that the fresh air let into Congress by the Republican takeover last November will not go stale.

If Congress will get about its business and address substantive issues, like deficit reduction, the cry for term limits will abate. The unnatural and unhealthy public anger with Washington will subside. In retrospect, this week's votes will prove to be the movement's high-water mark.

But if Congress bogs down in partisan bickering or chooses confrontation with President Clinton over progress, members may find themselves being ''terminated'' in 1996. And, as 1992 and 1994 showed, voters won't need term limits to do it.

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