Process Reform and the Electorate

Voters fight 'politics as usual' with budget amendment and term limits

WE'VE often been told in recent years that the American public is really interested not in ''process questions'' but in the substantive issues such as health care and welfare.

But as we are now seeing, much of the public is keenly interested in the ''process'' through which issues are handled by Congress and other agencies.

Historically, the way government is working has become a matter of lively public concern from time to time -- not surprisingly, in spans when its performance falls short.

The Progressive era at the start of this century is full of parallels to our own. The Progressives gained enormous political influence in much of the country, and their very raison d'etre was political process reform. Many of their achievements -- referenda and initiatives, the direct primary, and curbs on patronage -- remain embedded in our political process.

Today, many people are again troubled by what they see as unresponsive government. The Republicans' Contract With America proposals offered a slew of process reforms, including bringing the legislature under laws from which it had previously exempted itself, and the Balanced Budget Amendment, on which a battle for the necessary two-thirds majority was fought in the Senate this week.

The Progressives' argument was that too many governing institutions -- such as state legislatures and city boards of aldermen -- had come under the thumb of ''the interests,'' especially economic interests profiting at the public's expense.

In the critique of the 1980s and 1990s, old-fashioned graft as such isn't a factor. It's again ''the people vs. the interests,'' but the latter's composition has changed greatly. Government touches much more of national life these days, and the roster of ''special interests'' seeking things from it extends far beyond the business interests that worried the Progressives.

Public concern has also shifted from the states and localities to national government.

Government is seen to be run according to the priorities of political insiders, rather than those of the public.

Seeking to rein in the political class, Americans have settled on two putative remedies: The balanced-budget amendment and term limits. Neither proposal is without flaws and, not surprisingly, neither has as much support in political circles as among the public.

Pollsters asking Americans about amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget are finding large majorities endorsing the idea. In a Feb. 22-25 survey taken by CBS News and the New York Times, 80 percent said they favored the amendment; just 12 percent opposed it.

Imposing limits on the number of terms legislators may serve is unpopular among many politicians, but at the public level, support for term limits is strong and bipartisan.

Voters polled Nov. 8 by Voter News Surveys (VNS) were asked whether there should be ''limits on the number of years a member of Congress can serve [or] no limits.'' Seventy-two percent said there should be -- including 64 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of independents, along with 79 percent of rank-and-file Republicans.

Term limits measures were on the November ballot in eight states, from Alaska and Colorado to Massachusetts and Maine. Voters said yes in each case, bringing the number of states enacting some form of term limits to 25.

There are many good arguments against both the budget amendment and term limits. Shouldn't Congress retain the flexibility to incur deficits when fiscal stimulus is needed? And shouldn't voters retain the option to continue in office legislators they like as long as they like?

Such arguments are reasonable, but they miss the main point in the public's thinking. The federal budget hasn't been balanced since 1969, and Americans are searching for means to discipline the political class. On the whole happy about the change of power they effected last Nov. 8, they still lack confidence that the system can be liberated from special interests.

The continuing strong backing for the Balanced Budget Amendment and term limits is a protest against the politics as usual of recent years. Instead of faulting the protest instruments, we need to take more seriously the deep frustrations that have nurtured them.

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