ABRAHAM LINCOLN served two years in Congress, and then went home to resume his law practice in Illinois. But modern-day lawmakers look at Congress as a job-for-life. They build large staffs, accumulate campaign war chests, and cultivate influential supporters. Reformers contend that it is time to shake up this cozy system on Capitol Hill, where House districts have become personal fiefdoms, and where Senate seats stay in one politician's control for 20, 30, or even 40 years.
A newly formed group, Americans to Limit Congressional Terms (ALCT), is calling for a constitutional amendment that would cap House and Senate service at a total of 12 years.
Demands for rotation-in-office on Capitol Hill are growing. A poll by the Gallup Organization found last month that 70 percent of Americans would support limits on the time anyone could serve in Congress.
``I firmly believe that no single reform would do more good than to limit the terms,'' says Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire.
To back up his words, Senator Humphrey is resigning next January after serving 12 years. An aide says: ``He made that promise when he first ran for office. He believes in citizen-legislators.''
Another reformer, Rep. Craig James (R) of Florida, complains that ``career politicians'' have taken over Capitol Hill in place of the citizen-legislators like Mr. Lincoln in the 19th Century.
Congressman James wants to limit House members to just eight years, while allowing senators 12 years in office. Opponents of term limitation say it would badly undercut Washington, where expertise on subjects like defense, social policy, and legal affairs is much needed in Congress.
A term-limiting amendment, for example, would eventually displace Capitol Hill luminaries like Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, who has served 18 years in the Senate; Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, who has served in the House for 25 years; and Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who has been a senator for 21 years.
Yet proponents still favor fresh faces, new ideas, and frequent rotation in office. Leaders like Senator Nunn, Speaker Foley, and Senator Dole can find other places to serve, they contend.
Former Rep. Jim Coyne (R) of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of ALCT, says: ``We must not permit the establishment in this country of a separate governing class. Yet that may be what we are witnessing.''
Humphrey observes that lifetime politicians are now common because of campaign rules that make it almost impossible to beat incumbents. In the 1988 elections, 98.5 percent of all House members up for reelection won their races. The senator says members of Congress ``have erected a fortress that is all but impossible for challengers to storm.'' Members use the franking privilege [free mail], special-interest money, and large staffs to shut out opponents.
Congressman James says: ``Election to Congress was never designed to be a lifetime appointment. ... Our tenure was to be relatively brief to allow the best and brightest among us the opportunity to share their ideas and expertise.''
James charges that Congress has ``lost touch with the people'' and become ``inhabited by career politicians.'' They have ``legislated our nation deeper and deeper into a bureaucratic black hole, burdened by trillions of dollars of debt, suffocating government regulations, and paralyzing policies.''
One supporter of an amendment, David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, says rapid turnover in Congress would be an effective protection against special-interest money.
``Today the special interests can just buy a few key congressmen and control things. But this amendment would mean throwing the deck into the air more often,'' Mr. Keating says. ``The special interests would go broke trying to buy off Congress if terms were limited. They couldn't keep pace with all the open seats. That's why they are so upset about this idea. They already bought and paid for this Congress.''
ALCT's proposed amendment has drawn its primary support from outside the Washington Beltway. ALCT's advisory board includes 118 state legislators, 34 former members of Congress, but only two current members of Congress. Mr. Coyne says ALCT will urge ``passage of resolutions by at least 34 state legislatures, ratification by vote of Congress, and/or the calling of a constitutional convention.''
Most of the impetus for change will have to come from the states, members of ALCT concede, for Congress shows little enthusiasm for limits on terms.
Congress was less fixed in its ways in Lincoln's day, however. In Lincoln's Illinois district, so many young politicians wanted to go to Washington that the local Whig Party, to which Lincoln belonged, used a ``turn about'' system that allowed each man one term in the House.
Lincoln got his turn in 1846. He worked hard in Congress, but so far as local voters were concerned, he made one unforgivable mistake: He opposed the Mexican War. Illinois voters were so incensed with Lincoln that when it was time for the next ``turn about,'' the Whig candidate, Stephen Logan, was whipped by the Democrats.