PUBLIC anger over the performance of incumbent politicians is turning into action as more states and municipalities consider measures to limit the terms of their elected officials.
Ten to 12 states are likely to have ballot questions on the issue this fall. In addition, hundreds of United States cities have term limits for local officeholders including New Orleans; Worcester, Mass.; and Kansas City, Mo.
Although public dissatisfaction in government is not a new phenomenon, frustration with Congress, in particular, has been growing.
The uncovering of recent government improprieties, including the Keating Five influence-pedaling scandal, House bank overdrafts, and late-night voting of pay raises have only added to the general distrust of government and politicians.
"People love term limits because they will actually accomplish what all the other reforms that have been talked about have attempted to address. ... The goal is to eliminate the playing field," says Paul Jacob, director of an organization in Washington called US Term Limits.
Specifically, term limits will help curb abuse in campaign-finance practices and mailing privileges used by incumbents, Mr. Jacob says.
Only three states - California, Oklahoma, and Colorado - have passed term-limitation measures. California's, which includes limits on state office only, was challenged and upheld by the California Supreme Court last year.
All states likely to have ballot questions on the issue this fall are including limits for federal officeholders. Colorado is the only state that currently limits those terms.
But the idea of limiting terms of federal officeholders may face stiff legal challenges, say political observers.
"It will be tested. ... It will be challenged by lots of different sources," says Gary Orren, professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Residents of Washington State rejected a broadly-crafted ballot measure last year that would have also applied to politicians currently in office. The measure gained considerable attention because, if passed, it would have eliminated the state's entire US congressional delegation by 1994. US House speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington campaigned hard against it.
Opponents argue that voters should not be denied their choice of candidates.
"Our government is complex and requires a special expertise," says Susan Lederman, president of the League of Women Voters in Washington. "Ultimately term limits would take decisions away from voters. Voters can limit the terms of our legislature by voting them out of office."
In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. William Weld, along with a bipartisan coalition, is pushing a measure that would limit terms for office holders at both the state and federal level. The coalition, called LIMITS, stands for Let Incumbents Mosey Into the Sunset.
The Bay State proposal would limit state legislators to four two-year terms, state constitutional officeholders to two four-year terms, US representatives to four two-year terms, and US senators to two six-year terms.
The initiative process in Massachusetts takes longer than some other states. LIMITS supporters have gathered 72,000 certified signatures for their initiative. But the petition must be approved by two consecutive constitutional conventions as a constitutional amendment before it appears as a ballot question. At the state's constitutional convention Wednesday, the legislature delayed action on the proposed measure. The question will not make the state's November ballot until at least 1994 or later.
Term-limitations advocates say incumbents hold considerable campaign advantages over new challengers with easier access to the media, paid staff members, and mailing privileges.
Term limitations will eliminate powerful fiefdoms in legislatures controlled by long-term incumbents as well, say advocates.
"I think all too often we are getting young people into government who remain in government one term after another, after another and before you know it, they have been there 30, 40, years only talking to lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats," says Massachusetts state Treasurer Joseph Malone (R).
"Well there's a whole big world outside of the [Washington] Beltway. There's a whole big world outside of Beacon Hill," he says. According to Mr. Malone, 96 percent of members of Congress were re-elected in 1990.
The feeling of anti-incumbency swept through this historically Democratic state during the 1990 election after a severe budget crisis. But even though some powerful democrats were turned out of office, many incumbents were reelected. Out of 135 incumbent members of the state House of Representatives, 118 were reelected while 26 out of 33 incumbent state senators were reelected.