Some on Capitol Hill Seek a Vote To Limit Terms for Congressmen

Advocates of term limits gather signatures in House to force a vote

REP. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a 20-year veteran in Congress, strongly disagrees with the growing number of Americans who would dump ``career politicians'' and put term limits on Capitol Hill lawmakers.

Experience is a valuable asset, insists Mr. Hyde. He observes: ``I was [once] in a real typhoon out on the ocean. And oh, boy, was I glad I had a `career' captain on that ship.... New isn't always better.'' Hyde's views reflect the intense feelings of congressional leaders and some prominent scholars who say the nationwide movement to limit terms is badly misguided.

James Thurber, a political scientist at American University, notes that the country's Founding Fathers rejected term limits. Ultimately, limits would ``cause more problems than they would solve,'' he predicts.

Yet term-limit advocates are pressing ahead, both in Washington and in states throughout the country. In Congress, term-limit advocates - mostly Republicans - led by Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, have now gathered 107 signatures on a term-limits discharge petition. If Mr. McCollum can eventually get a majority of members (218) to sign, it would force a vote on a constitutional amendment. McCollum's proposal would limit both House and Senate members to 12 years of service.

Some congressmen would go even further. Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of South Carolina, a freshman, pledged recently at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing to step down after just six years in Washington.

``I'm committed to serving just three two-year terms,'' Mr. Inglis promised. Hyde, interrupting Inglis's statement, quipped: ``We'll throw you a big party when you retire.''

Three reasons

Critics of Congress are gaining support for the term-limits concept. They argue: ``If it's good enough for the president, who is limited to two terms, why isn't it good enough for Congress?'' Even so, defenders of the current system say there are at least three significant reasons to maintain the status quo.

House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, who has battled efforts in his own state to limit terms, complains that any restrictions on his time in Congress ``will inevitably weaken my ability to protect the interests of the constituents who elected me.''

Essentially, the Foley argument is: The voters should be king. If they want a particular man or woman to represent them for 20 years, or for 50 years, why not? Why should others have the right to dictate to the voters of Mr. Foley's district? Limiting terms to six, eight, or 12 years actually restricts the rights of the voters.

A second argument against limits involves experience. Hyde says of his time in Congress:

``It takes about eight years to begin to learn the job.... I do not share the term-limits advocates' trust that the `revolving door' will produce the future [Daniel] Websters and [Henry] Clays and [John C.] Calhouns, the Sam Rayburns and John McCormacks that this country will surely need in times of crisis.... Change isn't always to the good. That's banal.''

When reminded that he was no wallflower during his first eight years in Congress, Hyde insists that during those early terms, he was ``noisy, but ignorant.''

Finally, defenders of Congress say that imposing term limits would shift power away from Capitol Hill to the courts and to the White House - a change they find alarming.

Dr. Thurber warns that ``amateurs'' who come to Congress on short terms won't be able to compete with high-powered, entrenched interest groups, experienced congressional staff, or the White House. ``The power of knowledge and expertise will go somewhere else in the system,'' he says, at the expense of the elected representatives.

Congress becomes weak

``The legislature becomes inherently weak vis-a-vis the executive branch if you have term limits,'' the professor says.

Thurber, who conducts orientation programs for freshmen members in Congress, says: ``Meeting new members of Congress and their staff every two years in the House and the Senate has revealed to me that you cannot, no matter how bright you are, no matter how much experience you have had ... know how this place works.''

It takes time to learn the ropes - how to challenge officials from the executive branch, or to deal with special interest groups, Thurber says. Term limits would make it difficult to get the necessary experience.

Such arguments have done little to slow the rush toward term limits, however. In 14 states, terms limits were favored by 22.5 million voters in 1992 state initiatives - more votes than Ross Perot got nationwide that year.

Laws now on the books limit the terms of state legislators in 16 states. Fifteen states have approved limits on congressional terms, though such laws are being challenged in the courts, and may not stand.

Cleta Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Institute, says Congress is too entrenched, with a typical leader holding office for 27 years.

Congressman Inglis says: ``If I want someone to represent me, the last thing in the world I want is a professional politician, someone who has become well schooled in how to collect PAC [political action committee] money.... That is what the American people are absolutely sick and tired of.''

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