Public in Mood to Pass Term Limits for Congress

CONGRESSIONAL term-limit initiatives on ballots in 14 states appear likely to pass with wide margins despite opposition from many elected officials and lobbyists.

Reflecting the disgruntled mood of the electorate toward an entrenched United States Congress seen as profligate, the initiatives seek to limit the years of service by a senator or House member. Proponents of the initiatives assert that Congress has become a haven for professional politicians preoccupied with reelection and self-interest. Term limits, they say, would ensure turnover and encourage a more consistently diverse representation.

The states voting on congressional term limits are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

"Here in Florida," says Phil Handy, chairman of the Citizens for Limited Political Terms, "we are prevailing against just about every political force imaginable. Seventeen out of 19 congressmen are opposed to it. So is the governor."

Yet a recent poll in Florida conducted by the Lakeland Ledger indicated that 74 percent of those questioned favored the initiative.

Other recent voter polls taken in several states indicate favorable percentages in the high 70s for the initiatives.

In Kansas, a poll by the Kansas City Star indicated a 76 percent favorable response. In California, a recent Field Poll revealed 63 percent of those questioned supported the initiative. In June, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll revealed 83 percent in favor of term limits.

But even if all or most initiatives should pass, legal scholars contend that the measures could prove to be unconstitutional.

A US Supreme Court decision in 1969 ruled that Sections 2 and 3 of Article One of the US Constitution set only three qualifications for membership in Congress: age, citizenship, and residency. The initiatives, according to the scholars, would attempt to add criteria - the length of terms - and this could prove to be unconstitutional.

Proponents, however, say Article One, Section 4, is equally relevant. It affords the states the right to establish the "times, places, and manner" of holding elections.

"I don't know how quickly the court challenges will come," says James Coyne, a former Pennsylvania representative who heads Americans to Limit Congressional Terms, based in Washington, D.C., "but lawyers tell me the Supreme Court rarely takes a case until someone has been `injured.' Since all the initiatives are prospective, no politician can claim to have been injured for several more years."

The ultimate goal of proponents is to have Congress enact a constitutional amendment limiting terms. Any legal challenge to the initiatives would then be moot.

House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington vigorously opposed and helped defeat a term-limit initiative in his state in 1991. The initiative was retroactive. Had it passed, Mr. Foley would have been ousted from his seat. His argument focused on the loss of seniority his state's delegation would suffer to other states if the initiative had won. "Polls are one thing," he says of the successful campaign he conducted, "but passing [initiatives] with the necessary majority is another thing."

In California in 1991, when the state legislature sued to stop the voter-enacted term legislation for state government known as Proposition 140, the California Supreme Court ruled that the initiative was constitutional. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.

Currently, Colorado is the only state that has approved congressional term limits. The measure passed there in 1990 with 71 percent of the vote. The term limits do not apply until the year 2000.

None of the current initiatives on the ballots are retroactive. For instance, in Nevada the limits would apply only to members of Congress taking office in 1995.

All 14 states project the limits at future candidates, and two states say term limits would apply only if a number of other states also approved limits, thus defending the state from loss of the power of seniority. Florida's initiative would limit representatives to four terms (8 years) and senators to two terms (12 years). Most others states would limit representatives to three terms (6 years).

Former Representative Coyne rejects the argument that limited terms for representatives and senators means the Washington bureaucracy - staff, civil servants and lobbyists - will wield the real power.

"The reason that the 30-year veteran of the bureaucracy has power," says Coyne, "is because he's been a buddy for 30 years of an entrenched congressman and a powerful lobbyist. The people have no power to throw out the lobbyists or the power to fire the bureaucrats, but we do have the power to keep the congressmen from becoming entrenched."

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