THE path for proponents of term limits for members of Congress has just become much steeper.
The United States Supreme Court's decision yesterday rejecting term limits imposed by state legislatures as unconstitutional leaves advocates one main option, if such limits are to become law: a constitutional amendment.
A term-limit amendment would have to pass both chambers of Congress by a two-thirds vote as well as the legislatures of 38 states. Even backers of the issue say that would be difficult to achieve.
For one thing, it would mean large numbers of federal lawmakers would have to vote for their own eventual unemployment.
For another, it would mean a broader range of states would have to prove amenable to term limits than has so far been the case.
The strongest push for term limits to date has come from populist-oriented Western states, although 22 state legislatures have approved term-limit measures in one form or another.
''The proponents of term limits have to start all over again,'' says Thomas Baker, professor of constitutional law at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
In its 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected an Arkansas term-limits measure.
US Supreme Court Rejects State Limits On Federal Terms
A majority of justices rejected the notion that the law was only an election regulation -- something within the power of states to decide.
Instead, the justices held that state-passed term limits for congressional members strike at the heart of powers reserved for the federal government by constitutional law. They also ruled that Congress itself could not merely pass its own term-limit statute.
''Neither Congress nor the states should possess the power to supplement the exclusive qualifications set forth in [constitutional] text,'' said the 61-page opinion.
Court watchers point out that if George Bush had been elected president instead of Bill Clinton, the decision could easily have gone the other way. Clinton-appointed justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Anthony Kennedy and David Souter in the majority opinion.
Analysts were also surprised at Mr. Souter's vote, considering he had been appointed by Mr. Bush.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the 88-page dissent, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Dissenters argued that nothing in the Constitution explicity prohibits states from setting eligibility requirements for the candidates who wish to represent them in Congress. ''The Constitution is simply silent on this question,'' wrote Mr. Thomas.
Term-limit advocates vowed that their fight is still far from over. They pointed out that the issue could now become a live one for 1996 elections and beyond. Polls have long shown that term limits are popular with voters.
Paul Jacob of US Term Limits, a pro-term-limits group, says he has a message for all the career politicians celebrating the Supreme Court decision. ''You're outnumbered,'' he says.
Earlier this year, the House voted down a proposed term-limits consitutional amendment. House leaders, including Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, have said that they will try again at the beginning of the next Congress.
That would give proponents time to try and elect more pro-term-limit members of Congress. ''Whether the issue will be a litmus test for electing people to the 105th Congress, I don't know,'' says Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Arkansas voters had amended their state Constitution in 1992 to limit the number of times candidates for the US House or the US Senate could appear on the ballot. After three House terms or two Senate terms, candidates could only run as write-ins, under the amendment.
The League of Women Voters of Arkansas was the group which brought the successful challenge to the measure. The Arkansas Supreme Court had agreed with the League, and state officials appealed -- throwing the issue in the lap of the Supreme Court in Washington.