Limits of Term-Limit Pledges

It's tempting to say "I told you so." But we'll resist. It's enough to tell members of Congress who are now reconsidering their term-limits pledges that we're glad you recognize the value of experience - and of giving your constituents another chance to vote for you, if they so choose.

The term limits movement in this country gained momentum through the early '90s. Its appeal was populist and fashionably antigovernment - clearing out "professional" pols and assuring a regular influx of fresh faces untainted by the "system." Sounds good on its face. But the downside is a disregard for legislative skill acquired over years, and a lack of trust in voters' judgment.

In 1995, the US Supreme Court spoke on the issue. It ruled that states could not limit the terms of their representatives in Congress, which are set by the federal Constitution.

That ruling didn't affect term limits imposed on state legislatures, though the same practical drawbacks - such as loss of institutional memory and know-how - apply there. One of the states that pioneered limits, Maine, is currently considering rolling them back.

All but one of the 10 federal lawmakers who will come to terms with their personal term-limit pledges in 2000 are Republicans. A number of them have vowed to keep their pledges. The lone Democrat, Rep. Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, is among those leaning toward another term.

The most publicized case is that of Rep. George Nethercutt (R) of Washington, who unseated former House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994 and thus became a political giant-slayer of sorts. Mr. Nethercutt told voters then he'd limit his stay in Washington to six years - a popular stand in that year of Republican revolution. He now says he has "lived and learned." While he has not definitely unpledged himself, indications are strong he's eyeing two more years.

US Term Limits, the group that has spearheaded the movement, has branded Nethercutt a traitor. Its ads put him in a lineup with recent presidential word-breakers. The parallels are rough, at best. Many voters will forgive an honestly admitted mistake. If they don't, they can do their part to impose a term limit the old-fashioned way - at the voting booth.

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