Paul Jacob
Were terrorists to wipe out most of the Congress, how would republican government survive? Some fear the current plan to elect new congressmen won't work. The ensuing elections might be . . . uncompetitive!

This week in The Washington Post, Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, complained, "These elections, in other words, would be a sham: no chance for a range of candidates to emerge and test their appeal to the electorate; no chance for alternative voices; no real opportunity for debate and give-and-take."

No doubt. Still, I can't help but notice that what he says also applies to our regular elections.

Ornstein, a strident critic of term limits, goes on to say, "And of course, the 350 House members elected under these conditions would, if past experience is any guide, become incumbents with the ability to serve for as long as they wanted -- 98 percent would win reelection regularly thereafter."

Hmmm. I don't recall him admitting that when Congress was debating term limits.


Congress little concerns itself with term limits these days, and yet limits are all around them. There are term limits for committee chairman, by rule. Congressmen themselves have advanced proposals to limit the terms of executive branch nominees, such as Federal Election Commissioners. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military are term-limited.

Strange as it may seem, our representatives have long been big fans of term limits. Really. Congress voted for the constitutional amendment limiting the president's stay in office, ratified in 1951. In 1994, just before failing to pass even the most watered-down version of term limits for themselves, over 80 percent of representatives gladly voted to term-limit the committee chairmen just above them on the seniority ladder.

People looking for ways to limit government continue to look to term limits. Conservative activists, led by Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, have recently been urging term limits on appropriations committee members as the best way to stem the profligate spending in Washington. But, as Mr. Ornstein so ably points out, with the hammer-lock incumbents have on office, the congressional leadership regularly lurches the other direction.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.