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Time for Term Limits

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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.

The term limits movement of almost two decades ago latched onto a fundamental truth about human nature and politics, to wit, when people stay too long in power, they tend to get rusty, bored and corrupt. They see themselves as politically immortal, when their own feet are just as clay-caked as anyone else's. At this point, what would refresh them better than rest -- a change of scenery and vocation.

Cincinnatus, back in the fifth century B.C., had it about right when twice he accepted an invitation to become dictator during local emergencies, then, when everything was under control, resigned -- went back to the plow he had earlier left. It was a precedent that George Washington followed, consciously perhaps, when he returned to Mount Vernon upon helping the new republic launch itself.

Renunciation is the virtue that slashes like a kitchen knife when seized. Members of Congress, immersed in their privileges and perquisites, aren't the renouncing kind. Aides, lobbyists, reporters, sycophants of one sort or another give Sen. A or Congressman B the most subversive gift possible -- the big head. Yes, sir (it goes), he's the man, she's the woman, gotta stay in there, can't quit now, no, can't quit ever, where's that phone, got to make some fundraising calls.

A term limits law, or constitutional amendment, wouldn't save the country from egoism, stupidity and the lust for eternal power (cf. California). It might at that mitigate the severest consequences of eternal staying on, in the manner of West Virginia's 92-year-old Robert Byrd or, for that matter, Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts' permanent senator until the divine quorum call reached him after 47 years.

As the old saying goes, there oughta be a law. Really.

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