Term Limits' Limitations

This is the year that the term-limits chickens come home to roost. Most members of Congress who "took the pledge" (six years max) did so in '94, the year of the Gingrich revolution, and their time is up.

Some are stepping down as promised. Others, after a bit of seasoning in Congress, have decided that term limits were a bad idea. Chief among those is Rep. George Nethercutt (R) of Washington. He defeated former House Speaker Thomas Foley six years ago.

Back then, Mr. Nethercutt was as convinced as anyone of the evils of spending too much time in Washington, D.C., and getting hooked on inside-the-Beltway thinking. He's since seen the value of coming to understand, over time, how Congress works - and thus how things get done.

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Nethercutt's change of mind makes eminent good sense. He's right to offer his services once more to the voters of his district. Term limits would deprive them of that choice. Of course, they may give his broken pledge more weight than whatever he's managed to accomplish in the House. Term-limits advocates have vowed to punish Nethercutt at the polls.

Or voters may give him credit for being ready to learn from experience.

Apart from the relatively few members of Congress who imposed term limits on themselves (the Supreme Court having said that states could not impose limits on federal office), the politicians most affected by the movement work in the 18 state capitols where such limits are law. Some 380 state lawmakers will have to step down this year because of term limits.

This is causing a dearth of experience in many state legislatures - a loss not only of lawmakers but of legislative staff interested in job security - and an increase in the influence of lobbyists. Some states have weighed getting rid of term limits, but that's politically risky, since they've usually become law through ballot initiatives.

Many voters went for term limits because the idea sounded good. Certainly politics needs some shaking up, some fresher thinking. But this approach, strict limits on the time someone can spend in office, has created at least as many problems as it was supposed to solve. A better idea would be strong campaign finance reform, which would deprive incumbents of their huge edge in money.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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