THE 102nd Congress assembles this week looking not much different from the 101st. That is not surprising since 96 percent of the incumbents who sought re-election last fall won it. And thereby hangs a dilemma of American politics. To judge by public opinion polls, Congress is held in somewhat more esteem than drug pushers, but less than used car salesmen. Movements are afoot for a constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms a member of Congress may serve. These movements have been successful with respect to legislatures in some states, California among them. The idea seems to be that if we can't throw the rascals out at the polls, we'll make sure that they leave anyway via a constitutional guillotine.
But if the American public is so outraged by congressional performance, why doesn't it exercise its right at the ballot box to get a bunch of new congressmen? The answer apparently is that although Congress as a whole looks pretty bad, voters think that the individual member of Congress who represents them is pretty good. So how could a group be bad as a whole when the individuals who compose it are good?
The short, perhaps oversimplified, answer is that members of Congress and their constituents have become more parochial, not only in the old-fashioned pork-barrel sense but also in the sense of group interests. Every interest group in America is out to get what it thinks it has coming to it, and members of Congress are scared to say no. So individual constituents feel well served while the larger society of which they are a part steadily gets in more trouble.
Congress has a great deal to answer for in connection with the misallocation of American resources and the distortion of American priorities. But one has to ask whether a limitation on congressional terms would help. First of all, it's doubtful that such a limitation is a practical possibility. It requires a constitutional amendment that must first be proposed by Congress. Members of Congress are going to be reluctant to vote themselves out of a job. (The Constitution provides another way to amend it - through proposal by state legislatures. But in more than 200 years, this has never been used.)
But suppose such an amendment goes into effect. The limitation commonly proposed is 12 years - two terms in the Senate or six terms in the House. It would be comforting to think that a newspaper editor, or a lawyer, or professor, or housewife would find it appealing to interrupt a career to run for Congress, spend some time in Washington, and come back home to pick up where he or she left the career. This is unlikely to happen.
It is more likely that an ambitious younger person would get him or herself elected and then use Congress as a launching pad for a career in the high-flying world of Washington lawyers and lobbyists. From the day he arrived on Capitol Hill, the new member would be thinking about life after Congress. That would create a built-in conflict of interest. This is already happening with the congressional staff, many of whom want to work on Capitol Hill in order to seek a job somewhere else.
One should also look at precisely who would be thrown out of Congress if the 12-year limitation were in effect. Fifty-four of the senators who gather this week would not be there. Some would certainly not be missed, but the guillotine would also strike, among others, such sensible, widely respected senators as Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Finance Committee and the Democratic 1988 vice presidential nominee; Sam Nunn, chairman of Armed Services; Claiborne Pell, chairman of Foreign Relations; John Chafee and John Warner, both former secretaries of the Navy; Paul Sarbanes and Richard Lugar, both former Rhodes scholars, and William Cohen, the renaissance man from Maine.
In the House, we would lose, among others, Dante Fascell, the steady chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Robert Michel, the Republican leader, Silvio Conte, the conscience of the Appropriations Committee; Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of Ways and Means; Don Edwards, a former FBI agent and the watchdog at Judiciary; Speaker Thomas Foley; Lee Hamilton, always a sensible voice on intelligence and foreign policy; the thoughtful David Obey, whose steady hand is on the foreign-aid purse strings; Les Aspin, the chairman of Armed Services; Charles Rangel, the Harlem lawyer who got a handful of combat medals in Korea before he finished high school.
These people are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What they have in common is an understanding of, and devotion to, the American political system. Without them, it would work even less well than it does now.