TERM-LIMIT laws are spreading across the United States like an unstoppable kudzu vine.
The concept of limits is direct, simple, and has tremendous political appeal to many Americans. It permits congressmen to serve only six years in the House, 12 years in the Senate. Then they're out.
Congress wants to uproot the idea - but public support for reining in members on Capitol Hill is growing rapidly. Such limits are now officially in place in 15 states, with action pending in eight more next year.
The goal of reformers appears to be drawing closer. They want a Senate and House composed entirely of ``citizen lawmakers'' who serve temporarily. The legislators would then, presumably, go home to live under laws they had passed.
The battle cry of term-limit supporters is: ``No more career politicians.''
Congressmen, state legislators, and lobbyists denounce term limits as unwise and unconstitutional. They say that America benefits from electing ``professional'' lawmakers who become experts in foreign policy, defense, and budgeting.
Efforts on both sides are gaining momentum, and a major struggle could be brewing. Opponents, led by the League of Women Voters, are launching court challenges. US Term Limits, a lobbying group, is stepping up efforts from Idaho to Illinois to Maine to adopt congressional limits.
Meanwhile, 16 states have capped service in their own legislatures. The ceiling for state legislators is usually set at eight years, and is now often being extended to local officeholders, like mayors. Courts have stayed silent
So far, the courts have remained mostly silent in this growing tug of war. But federal judges could eventually have the last word. If they rule that term limits for Congress are unconstitutional - a distinct possibility - then proponents will have to start all over again by lobbying legislatures and congressmen for an amendment.
Yet opponents realize that there is a fast-running current in favor of limits. Congress is extremely unpopular with a majority of Americans, and many critics see limits as a way to bring fresh ideas, new people, and greater honesty to Capitol Hill.
Even so, Thomas Mann, an authority on Congress at the Brookings Institution, calls limits ``a bad idea whose time should never come.''
The idea of limits is nothing new. In 1787, the Founding Fathers considered, but unanimously rejected, the ``Virginia Plan'' to restrict congressmen to one consecutive term. In 1950, President Truman backed a 12-year limit on service in the House and Senate.
Today's term-limit supporters, who were long ignored by Congress just as Truman was, went over the heads of federal lawmakers directly to the grass roots. Using voter initiatives and state lobbying, they have won limits on congressional terms in 15 states, mostly in the West. Those states control 30 US senators and 36 percent of the membership of the House.
Opponents are growing concerned. Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, concedes: ``Our political system is failing the American people.'' But Ms. Cain says term limits are not the way to fix it. She denounces them as a ``simplistic'' answer to a complicated problem.
Unless the courts block them, congressional limits will begin to bite around 1998, when House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington and dozens of his colleagues could be forced to retire.
Speaker Foley, the League of Women Voters, and other interested parties are suing to block term limits in Washington State in what could be a decisive case.
In his brief to the US district court in Seattle, Foley protested that imposing a limit on his service ``will inevitably weaken my ability to protect the interests of the constituents who elected me.'' As the 1998 election nears, he will lose stature in the House, and that will damage voters in his state, he charges.
US Term Limits, in its brief, found Foley's complaint ``particularly preposterous,'' since it comes from the Speaker, ``who is, by definition, the most influential member of Congress.'' League opposes limits
The League of Women Voters told the court that it often takes ``a decade or more'' to get difficult issues through Congress. Cutting off House members after six years will injure the league's ability to ``lobby'' and ``educate'' incumbents to deal with ``tough, complicated national problems,'' the league insists.
Critics of the league's position, however, counter that it is long service in Washington that often makes congressmen listen more closely to lobbyists than their own voters. They say these ``career politicians'' often seek personal power by raising taxes and expanding wasteful programs that they control through their committees.
The greatest hurdle to term limits may be the Constitution's own qualifications clause, which sets forth the requirements needed to run for Congress.
Lloyd Cutler, a former counsel to President Carter, says the Supreme Court has ruled that the qualifications set forth in the Constitution to be a candidate for Congress are ``defined and fixed.''
Those qualifications include being at least 25 years old to serve in the House (30 in the Senate), a citizen of the US for at least seven years (nine for the Senate), and an inhabitant of the state one represents. That's it. No other exclusions. Nor are the states allowed to add any special requirements.
Both sides indicate that if they lose in the district court, they will eventually appeal to the Supreme Court.