Some in GOP Walk High Wire On Term Limits

MARGE ROUKEMA, a 15-year GOP representative from New Jersey, not only vowed to vote against her party on term limits, she was angry that Republicans ever took up the cause.

''I grieve that my party is playing fast and loose on this issue,'' she says. ''The American people have been taken in by what seems an attractive idea. But it runs the danger of corrupting the electoral process.''

In the battle this week over term limits, Ms. Roukema was not the only voice out of tune with the GOP chorus. Dozens of mostly senior Republicans, including the third-ranking member and four committee chairmen, planned to vote against the constitutional amendment in any of its forms.

Several were targeted by advocacy groups as abusers of the perquisites that have become symbols of congressional impunity: check bouncing, midnight pay raises, and bloated pensions.

But few of the dissenting Republicans, posing as defenders of constitutional principle, seemed worried about retribution at the polls. Surveys show about 70 percent of voters favor term limits.

The House was expected to vote as early as last night on four versions of a constitutional amendment to limit the tenure of senators and representatives. The measure is perhaps the most popular plank in the Republican agenda among voters, and the only one that directly limits the power of individual members.

But Republican vote counters expected all four versions to fail, blaming Democrats for failing to provide enough votes.

Advocates argue that term limits are needed to curb careerism and a litany of problems that result from it -- such as an erosion of accountability and a steady increase in the influence of special interest groups.

Dissenting Republicans scoff at these arguments. Take careerism, for example.

''The question isn't whether to limit terms, but who should limit them,'' says Rep. John Porter, a 15-year veteran from Illinois. ''I have a two-year term. I'm limited. I will leave it to the people of my district to limit my term.''

Mr. Porter and others point out that the vast majority of House members have served less than five years, and that the average tenure of service is seven. The present system, in other words, is working, they argue.

Advocates disagree, arguing that even in the high turnover years of 1992 and 1994, the reelection rate for incumbents was above 90 percent.

So, pass campaign finance and lobbying reform, Representative Roukema says. She lost her first campaign, she says, because she did not have the funds to buy access to television and radio airwaves. ''It should be required to have have free air and TV time, and a limitation on franked mail around election time,'' she says. ''Challengers need to get a voice. You need access to challenge'' an incumbent.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut argues that term limits only end up hurting the people who advocate them. The Republicans sought presidential term limits in response to Franklin Roosevelt's tenure, he points out, but so far only Republican presidents -- Eisenhower and Reagan -- have been effected by them.

Furthermore, Mr. Shays says, term limits are a response to a problem that the last election solved. ''People wanted a change of party,'' he says. ''The problem wasn't 40 years of Democratic rule, but 40 years of one-party rule. The last election showed that people can be defeated with ideas and aggressive campaigns.''

For Rep. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, the debate over term limits has been fraught with hypocrisy. ''If the House is in crisis to the extent that you are going to deny voters the right [of unrestrained choice],'' term limits should be retroactive, he says. ''The guilty party'' is already here.

Several dissenting Republicans argue that term limits will strip Congress of institutional memory and experienced lawmakers, and will place government in the hands of unelected staff members not bound by career constraints.

But of all the arguments against term limits, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York, first elected in 1982, says the most important is protection of the rights of voters.

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