Bill Murchison

Back to the future -- or something like that.

The last time Americans got wound up about the assorted misfeasances and incompetencies of the U.S. Congress, the national conversation opened itself to the possibility of term limits for the members. That's to say, no member could serve more than "X" number of consecutive terms. On completing that sacrosanct number, the member would remove from his office all photos, plaques and testaments to his indispensability. He would suddenly become dispensable -- another way of saying human.

This was in the early '90s, when incrusted Democrats had a choke hold on the House of Representatives (though not the Senate). There was then a head of steam for measures to make lawmakers quit at a time predetermined so that -- as a catch phrase had it -- they could return home to live under the laws they had made.

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There was a lot of sentimentality and naivete to the notion. First in line was the belief that the turkeys would vote for Thanksgiving. Why on earth should the great and powerful dull their own magnificence by agreeing to quit at a date specified and turn the job over to others? A second consideration was, why assume they'd go home to live under their own laws when imperial Washington offered so many temptations -- contracts, say, for lobbying or jobs in the presidential administration?

Term limits made some headway here and there around the country, e.g., California, but in Washington, all it generally excited was personal pledges and expressions of ambiguous sentiment.

Comes 2010. It would seem time philosophically, leave aside practically, to slap a little paint on the matter and exhibit it once more in the sunshine. Permit an old hand in the term limits cheering section to suggest that members of both parties, in both houses of Congress, would benefit from legal, not just moral, limitations as to the time permitted them in a particular national office. More to the point, the country would likely benefit.

As I say, don't bet the mortgage on early enactment of term limits. On the other hand, with a Rasmussen poll showing nearly half of Americans believe people randomly picked from the telephone directory would make better laws than the present Congress, let us not overestimate the public's veneration for ancient behavioral patterns.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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