Forget Term Limits. Just Vote.

DESPITE the Senate's defeat of a non-binding term limits resolution, the House's rejection of a term limits constitutional amendment, and the Supreme Court's ruling throwing out state-passed congressional limits, this issue is taking longer to die than Elvis.

The congressional votes were designed to make term limits a big issue in next year's election. Ross Perot's third party and most Republican contenders will keep term limits high on the presidential campaign agenda. And term limit groups are furiously lobbying the states to call a constitutional convention.

But it's time for voters to rid themselves of their infatuation with term limits and give this issue the burial it deserves.

Why? Put aside for a moment the usual arguments against term limits - that they would deprive Congress of its best legislators, increase the power of lobbyists and unelected bureau- crats, and reduce voter choice.

Ultimately, voters should reject term limits because the issue embodies perhaps the most dangerous problem facing this country today: our increasing cynicism and despair over politics, which culminate in a refusal even to participate in civic life.

By relying on totalistic quick fixes like term limits to discharge what should be our civic responsibilities, we are giving up on democracy. By listening to demagogues who tell us that our votes don't matter, that Congress isn't ours, that Washington isn't part of America, we are turning these scurrilous opinions into truths. By giving in to the counsels of despair, we are repudiating our founders' original vision - a free and democratic nation of citizens joined together by common rights and responsibilities.

This culture of suspicion - "you can't trust anyone in office after six (or 12) years" - creates a vicious cycle in which negative attitudes are reinforced and politics get uglier.

It's time to remember the words of a great Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who said, "The government is us; we are the government, you and I." In a democracy, you get the government you deserve. We have to do the heavy lifting ourselves.

The first responsibility of citizens in a democracy is to vote. In presidential elections, we're lucky if we see just over half the eligible voters make it to the polls. In 1994, only 38 percent showed up. Many term limits initiatives were passed by small minorities while everyone else stayed home and watched on television.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires more than voting on election day - it requires making independent judgments about every incumbent running for reelection.

It is easy to feel marginalized these days, to believe that your vote doesn't matter, that no one tells you the truth.

We must move away from such cynicism. Democracy is based on the faith that people can take responsibility for their lives and fashion a political community that works. America is founded on hope that the future can be made better by our actions, collective and individual.

Without faith and hope, the US would not have survived calamities far worse than the ones we find demoralizing today. Slavery, the Civil War, Great Depression, two World Wars, even the revolution that created our nation make our present challenges seem trivial. They make us look pathetic for not having the courage to face our problems head on, but instead choosing gimmicks like term limits.

By summoning the courage to vote "no" on term limits, voters will send a message that desperately needs to be heard - of hope and faith in our people, our nation, and democracy itself.

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