'No' to Term Limits

T'S been a great few weeks for people who like to get mad at Congress - which probably includes most of us.First came the news that House members were overdrawing their bank accounts. Then the mess over the Clarence Thomas nomination. Not to mention the pay raise. And the deficit. No wonder a movement is growing to throw the bums out, by limiting the number of terms that elected officials can serve. Well, I'm sorry to spoil the fun. But term limitations aren't the answer. I've worked in Congress. I've seen most of the arrogance and abuses firsthand. But there are also a lot of dedicated legislators you don't hear much about. Term limitations would mean fewer of them. Worse is who's waiting in the wings in Washington if Congress becomes a bunch of novices. Term limitations would take the nation from bad to worse. There are much better ways to get Congress to shape up. First, an unpleasant truth. Congress is the way it is because we citizens are the way we are. Take the deficit. It merely mirrors the way many Americans run their own lives. While the federal deficit ballooned during the '80s, personal debt - credit cards, car loans, and so forth - more than doubled. Recently, Fortune magazine ran a story on how the "average" American lives. One family of five, from Missouri, was pictured with its possessions: a $16,000 motorboat, two motorcycles, four VCRs, eight TVs, t hree cars, and more. "We lived Reaganesque," the husband explained, "figuring we'd pay off the debt with next year's salary increase." The old saw said that government should be run like a household. Unfortunately, now it is. The reason Congress spends so much, moreover, is that voters want it to. A retired farmer once wrote our congressional office, offering to give up some of his Social Security to help cut the deficit. There weren't many letters like that. (Have you ever written one?) From realtors to public employees, virtually everyone else said "Don't cut my share." Most of the abuses people see in Congress simply reflect what happens in America at large. Those overdrawn accounts, for example. In many cases, the amounts were just a few hundred dollars. You've never done that? Congressional salaries pale next to executive pay in the corporate sector. Steven Ross, the head of Time Warner Inc., makes some $60 million, which is almost enough to pay the salaries of all 535 members of Congress combined. But the taxpayers pay the congressional salaries and perks, you say. Well, who do you think pays for the bloated executive salaries? If you ever go shopping, it's you. The reasons advanced for term limitations are beside the point anyway. Partisan axes are grinding behind the scenes. Most incumbents are Democrats, and that's the real animus behind the movement. (These advocates are not calling for limitations on Supreme Court terms too. Conservatives are in control there, so democracy can wait.) Everyone is entitled to their view. But the advocates of congressional term limitations shouldn't hide behind a banner of power to the people. Because in reality, their proposal would do just the opposite. A Congress of novices is a Congress totally dependent on Washington's permanent government of lobbyists, bureaucrats, and staff to explain the issues and guide them through the legislative ropes. Term limitations wouldn't get rid of incumbents; they'd simply shift power to this other crowd of incumbent s who aren't elected by anybody. Today, congressional incumbents can build a political base back home that gives them independence from the interest groups that infest the Capitol. With term limitations, that wouldn't happen anymore. The basic problem is the way Congress is elected, not how long members serve. Clean up elections - make it easier to mount a challenge - and the voters can do the rest. The first step, of course, is to reduce the role of money in campaigns; the best way is to restrict the use of TV, where most campaign money goes. There's another step that isn't much discussed. We need a new line on the ballot: "None of the Above." Today, politicians win by spending a fortune to convince us that the other guy is bad. With this new ballot line, they'd have to convince us of something more relevant: that they themselves are worth voting for.

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