Limited Appeal

As an issue, term limits has come face-to-face with its limits. Politicians tend to like the idea until they become incumbents themselves. And voters like it until they hit a stretch of relative satisfaction with their elected representatives.

Both factors are heavily in play now. Just look at the recent 2-to-1 primary defeat of term-limits advocate Charles Gerow by Rep. Bill Goodling (R) of Pennsylvania. Mr. Goodling is now on course for a 13th term in Congress, after having posed, himself, as a term-limits backer in '94 and '96.

The country's term-limits movement poured resources into the race, hoping to make a Goodling defeat the launching pad for lofting their issue into next November's contests. Instead, they fizzled, as voters showed their affection for a long-time officeholder whose tenure has garnered influential chairmanships.

Indeed, the link between length of service in the House and the power to get things done is one reason even one- or two-term GOP federal lawmakers once zealous for limits now question the faith. Another is the complexity of policy and parliamentary matters confronting legislators. Some former campaigners for limits have come to the conclusion that three terms (the most often proposed limit for House members) just aren't enough to become really effective.

Those concerns are probably no less prevalent among state legislators, but the courts have generally allowed the imposition of term limits at the state level. Federal rulings have denied states' voters or legislatures the power to restrict congressional terms.

At whatever level, we feel the best argument against limits remains the right of voters to choose the best people for the job, no matter how long their tenure. When performance lags, popularity wanes, and a good challenger comes along, voters have shown they know how to set a limit.

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