Limiting of Terms Gains Backing

But even as movement grows across the United States, opposition to 'reform' stirs. LEGISLATIVE TENURE

HOUSE Speaker Thomas Foley has served the State of Washington in Congress since 1964, but his stellar career now could be cut short by a determined band of reformers at home.A group called LIMIT has collected 254,263 signatures to force a statewide referendum on whether members of the House of Representatives from Washington should be forced out of office after serving for six years. If the initiative is approved on Nov. 5, and if the courts uphold the result, Mr. Foley could be involuntarily retired in 1994. The initiative could also cut short other careers in Congress, as well as in the Washington State legislature and the governor's office. The State of Washington is the focal point this year for a growing nationwide movement that political analyst Charles Cook says is becoming a "stampede." Already in the first six months of 1991, 148 bills were introduced in 45 states to limit the terms of political officeholders - everyone from United States senators to county commissioners. The measures are supported by people like Sherry Bockwinkel, who is directing the term-limit effort in Washington State. "People [are] tired of government that is not working," Ms. Bockwinkel explains. "[Ours] is a very clean and simple idea. We limit our president to two terms, and we should apply it to other levels of government." Bockwinkel says state legislators and members of Congress constantly fuel public anger. Recently, she says, legislators in several states raised their pay by anywhere from 22 to 54 percent.

'Hot button' issues Then there was a news report that 10 legislators were going at government expense to the Netherlands to "study democracy," she says. And there was the decision by one state's legislators to "give themselves car phones year-round, even though they are in session for just [a few] months, at a cost to taxpayers of $150 a month each." Bockwinkel says: "These are hot buttons that touch people. If businesses were run like government, they would all be bankrupt." However, opposition to term limits has begun to surface. Groups as disparate as the AFL-CIO and the League of Women Voters are uniting to block such legislation, especially when it would impact Congress. A statement adopted by the AFL-CIO Executive Council calls the term-limit movement a clear attempt to "undermine this nation's system of representative democracy. The people already have the right to limit the terms of elected officials by denying them reelection." Lloyd Leonard, legislative director of the League of Women Voters, says term limits would unwisely weaken Congress and strengthen the White House. "The presidency is a very powerful office, and our system is based on a balance. It is our feeling that by cutting back too sharply on the the ability of members of Congress to gain expertise and knowledge about government, the president would become much too powerful," Mr. Leonard says. Leonard admits that there are problems with Congress, but he argues that these can be handled through campaign-finance reform. Rachel Dale, an official with Let the People Decide, says that even the phrase "term limits" is inaccurate. It should be "voter limits," for it is voter choice that is being restricted. Ms. Dale says that the more people learn about "voter limits," the more wary they become. She points out that in California, which passed term limits in 1990, the idea was initially supported by more than 70 percent of the people in polls. But by election day that had dropped to just 52 percent. "That to me is not the sign of a great public wave," she says.

'Clear-cutting' Mr. Cook, who writes "The Cook Political Report," worries that term limits are too indiscriminate. He says: "I would concede that a lot of legislators and a decent number of members of Congress are slugs and could be replaced with no damage to the system." But Cook compares term-limiters to people who clear-cut a forest. "If the frustration is high enough, they are willing to take the redwoods out, too. They need a way to separate the redwoods from the trash trees." Margaret Colony, president of the League of Women Voters in Washington State, insists that limits are unneeded. Mrs. Colony observes that of the 98 members of the states House of Representatives, only seven have served more than 10 years. In the Senate only 13 of 49 have served more than 10 years. But Bockwinkel is unimpressed. "We are forcing turnover at the higher levels, so good guys can get into senior positions. We've had some chairs in the committees for over 20 years, and they are making the decisions," she says. "If they had deadlines, they would get the job done," she says, "instead of thinking: 'We could work on that bill next time.' "

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