The Lazy Way Out

A RECENT federal court ruling in Washington State has wisely fired a warning shot across the bows of those who want to legislate limits to the number of terms members of Congress can serve.

In a ruling on a suit brought by House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, United States District Court Judge William L. Dwyer said that only the US Constitution can set the length of terms for federal officeholders. The decision, which opponents vow to appeal, tosses out provisions of Washington's 1992 term-limit law that apply to members of Congress. The law limits representatives to three consecutive terms and senators to two. Once the limit is reached, the incumbent could run again, but only as a write-in candidate.

Limiting terms for members of Congress clearly has retained its appeal to an electorate angry at what it sees as the institution's lack of responsiveness. Since 1991, 15 states have adopted term limits. Supporters hope to adopt similar measures in eight states this year.

On the surface, term limits are appealing; they appear to provide a fail-safe mechanism for preventing members of Congress from becoming too entrenched on Capitol Hill, beholden to special interests and losing touch with voters back home. Yet voters already have what can be an effective term-limit device: the vote. The 1992 election sent 112 new senators and representatives to the nation's capital. This year also could see a number of new faces.

Term limits, an easy way to avoid being an informed, active member of the electorate, fall indiscriminately on competent and incompetent lawmakers alike. Ironically, in many of the opinion surveys that show deep dissatisfaction with Congress as an institution, respondents generally give high marks to their own representative or senator. This dovetails with the large percentage of incumbents returned to office after each election - suggesting either voter satisfaction or an electorate too disengaged to back the challenger.

In his decision, Judge Dwyer noted that in their design of Article I of the Constitution, the framers clearly felt that a minimalist approach to qualifications would allow the people to ``return whom they thought proper'' to Congress. The qualifications were not left to shifting political winds.

Arguing for the limits in the case, former Attorney General Griffin Bell asked, ``What are the limits on the power of the people?'' The answer: very few when that power is responsibly exercised in the voting booth.

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