IT is the only proposal in the ``Contract With America'' that does not involve money, yet it may be the costliest for Republicans, and it jingles the most with change.
Item 10, the ``Citizen Legislature Act,'' marks the coming of age of congressional term limits. Twenty-two states have them. Courts in three of those states have invalidated them. The Supreme Court is now considering whether states are constitutionally empowered to impose them.
The issue may ultimately have to be decided by Congress, which until now has kept term limits buried in subcommittee. House Republicans, now in the majority, have promised to bring their conservative agenda to a floor vote in the first 100 days of the next Congress, ensuring the first-ever roll call on term limits.
Voter expectations are high. Welfare reform and a balanced- budget amendment rank higher among voters' priorities. But on no other Contract issue are Republicans more vulnerable to their promise to vote on, not necessarily pass, legislation.
More than 70 percent of voters support term limits, Republican pollsters say, and the issue has become a lightening rod in the campaign against congressional gridlock and political careerism. So far, Republicans don't have enough votes for passage.
``There will be serious and negative consequences for Republicans if we don't pass term limits,'' says Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of South Carolina, author of one of two term-limit proposals. ``The Contract promises only a vote, but that's not what the American people have heard.''
Mr. Inglis has proposed a three-term limit for congressmen and two-term limit for senators. He lives by his word: A sophomore legislator, he has vowed to serve only six years in the House. (He doesn't hide that he has designs on a future in the Senate.)
Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, who backs a constitutional amendment imposing term limits, has pitched limiting congressmen to six terms.
Both proposals are included in the Contract, and the difference between them is not unimportant to ardent term-limit advocates.
``A three-term limit would produce a Congress with impact,'' says Paul Jacob, executive director of the Washington-based US Term Limits. ``McCollum's is the politician's term limit. Eight-two percent who favor term limits favor three over six terms. Politicians are not going to dictate this; they work for us.''
Mr. McCollum defends his approach: ``Somebody needs to be here a while in order to gain enough experience to become a committee chairman,'' he says. ``Six years is too short.... And I've always held that an imbalance between the House and Senate is not necessarily good government.''
Earlier this month, House Republicans agreed to limit committee chairmenships to six years, and may hold leadership posts to eight. But Inglis and McCollum argue that term limits are still necessary to create a more accountable and vigorous Congress with greater gender, ethnic, and professional diversity.
Opponents of term limits counter that such a measure would force members to put their own interests before the needs of the country as they hurry to leave a mark on the institution. Further, they argue, the franchise works.
``There's the old notion that Congress has less turnover than the Supreme Soviet, but the [Nov. 8 midterm] election destroyed that notion,'' says Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. More than half the House was elected in 1990 or later.
``Look at the turnover you get,'' Inglis counters. ``It comes from open seats. You don't get turnover from campaign competition.'' In the past three elections, he notes, reelection rates were above 90 percent - ``higher than the Politburo in the Soviet Union.''
Beyond the debate over the impact of term limits on Congress is a fierce constitutional battle. Term-limits advocates argue the Founding Fathers purposely empowered states to enact restrictions in the electoral process. State term-limit laws regulate an incumbent's ballot access. The 10th Amendment, advocates say, further guarantees states' rights to impose such restrictions.
But the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected a state term-limit law on grounds that it violated the US Constitution's qualifications clause, which stipulate only age, nationality, and residency.
Supreme Court has issue
The Arkansas case is now before the US Supreme Court. Regardless of how it decides, congressional term limits may require a constitutional amendment.
Inglis proposes a statute, which needs a simple majority to move to the Senate. McCollum seeks an amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote. If the Supreme Court rejects the Arkansas term-limit law, Congress will be forced toward the amendment.
Meanwhile, House members will be watching each other closely. About 200 lawmakers support term limits, advocates estimate. But the issue has a strong opponent in Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, the incoming chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue. Republican leaders give it only lukewarm support.
Proponents hope if the tally moves toward what is needed for passage, as is widely expected, members who oppose term limits will be forced to fall in line or risk voter wrath in 1996.
``Republicans will lose credibility in the American people's eyes if they don't work hard on this,'' says Elizabeth Stern of the Term Limits Legal Institute in Washington. ``The American electorate is doing the Rumpelstilskin, screaming up and down, and still 90 percent are reelected.''