WILL term limits bring drastic reform to American politics? Terry Considine, a Republican state senator in Colorado, says they will, and millions of voters seem to agree.
In Oklahoma, Colorado, and California, voters this fall slapped limits on the number of years a state legislator can serve. Colorado went one step further - approving a limit for federal officeholders from Colorado.
The reforms are aimed at career politicians who currently cling to office for as long as 30 or 40 years. Critics contend that incumbent protections, like large, government-paid staffs and free mail, as well as special-interest money, make it nearly impossible to defeat officeholders. Ninety-six percent of all congressmen were reelected Nov. 6, for example.
The term-limit effort gets roundly criticized by many politicians, journalists, and academics, such as Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution and Tom Cronin of Stanford University. But voters don't agree. Colorado approved an eight-year limit on state officeholders and a 12-year limit on federal officeholders by a whopping 71-to-29 margin on Tuesday. California voters approved by a much narrower margin a six-year limit on members of the state Assembly.
``This is a great day for America,'' says Senator Considine. ``The people of Colorado have a visceral understanding that government is not working as it should. The system has become inbred and self-serving, rather than accountable. . . .''
The measures could face constitutional challenges in court, however. The greatest uncertainty involves states which try to put limits on federal officeholders.
Considine, who led the fight for term limits in Colorado, says: ``Politicians have begun to look at government as a source of a well-paid job which is even more generously rewarded by the euphoria of power. People don't like it. We need to redefine public service as part of a broader life.''
Dr. Cronin argues that term-limiters are trying to achieve reform in the wrong way. The real problems with American elections, he says, are uncompetitive, gerrymandered districts, franked mail, and special-interest money. Reformers are treating a symptom, rather than the root causes, he says.
Some analysts warn that ``throwing the rascals out'' will also mean getting rid of valuable members of legislatures and the Congress, such as Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia. And they contend that forcing members to step down after a certain number of years denies voters the right to support anyone they wish for office.
Considine disagrees. He recalls that George Washington, America's first president, stepped aside after two terms.
``If George Washington could do that, so too can Willie Brown,'' the long-serving speaker of the California assembly.
``George Washington didn't have a retirement program [from government]. He recognized that in any country attempting self-government, more people need to serve,'' Considine says.
He denies that term limits are part of the anti-incumbent sentiment in the United States this year.
``People want rotation in office more than term limits. They want a return to American tradition.''
Considine cites a line from William Wordsworth, the English poet, that notes that sometimes limits actually give greater freedom. Rotation in office will give more people an opportunity to serve.
``People will know from the beginning that this is not a career,'' Considine says. ``It will be like serving on the board of the United Way, or being a deacon at church. But once politicians begin to talk about pay raises and pensions, you know that they are beginning to look at public service in the wrong way.''
The term-limit movement, sometimes called the ``Colorado idea,'' has been compared to the ``Wisconsin idea,'' which led to the popular election of senators. Until this century, senators were appointed by state legislatures.
Considine says he's been contacted by reformers in 30 states to get details of Colorado's plan. He expects the idea to spread swiftly, particularly in parts of the country where initiatives can be put on the ballot by citizens.
Meanwhile, Considine is turning his attention to the next stage of his reform effort: cleaning up campaign financing.
He first hopes to ban contributions to any candidate from sources outside his own district or state.