Term Limits Live, for Now

TERM limits, a battle cry of the Republican ''revolutionaries'' elected to Congress in 1994, went nowhere in Washington last year. They couldn't muster enough votes for passage even in Newt Gingrich's House. And the Supreme Court struck down state laws limiting the terms of federal lawmakers.

But term limits are still on the move outside the national capital. In fact, they're about to cut short political lives in two state capitals. This year will be the last year in office for 27 long-serving California Assembly members. They'll be the first to go under a state law limiting Assembly service to six years (effective 1996) and state Senate service to eight years (effective 1998).

On the country's opposite end, Maine's term limits also take hold this year, capping tenure in both of that state's legislative chambers at eight years. In between are 19 other term-limiting states, with implementation dates ranging from 1998 to 2008 and prescribed terms ranging from six to 12 years. The idea teeters on the verge of enactment in a number of additional states.

It's all a testament to the momentum that can build behind a idea that masks fundamental flaws with populist appeal. The aim is to rid legislatures of professional politicians who supposedly serve themselves, not the public. But thoughtful observers in California, Maine, and other states worry that term limits will actually rid their lawmaking bodies of crucial expertise. In seats of government, power gravitates to those who understand how the place works and how to get things done. If such know-how doesn't reside in the lower house of a legislature, it'll gravitate to the upper house or to the executive. In many cases, it'll flow to legislative staffers, who don't have to worry about term limits.

Are weakened representative bodies what voters want? Voters are the heart of the matter. Term limits imply voters' inability to remove poor legislators, while restricting their ability to retain good ones. They are a bad idea at any level of government.

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