Term limits in vogue again?

Posted: May 04, 2006 12:05 AM

Let's turn back the clock. It's 1994.

That should be music to the ears of Republicans and true-red conservatives everywhere.

Recall that a GOP to-do list called the "Contract With America" was front and center in the public eye. Term limits for elected officials was a key provision.

Nowadays, opinion surveys more and more show that many Americans who consider themselves conservative Republicans are increasingly annoyed at GOP-elected officials. Some of these voters appear ready to throw their own bums out. But they're not about to vote for Democrats to replace them.

For these disaffected voters, a third major political party in America would be nice. The Libertarians, for example. But neither the Libertarians nor any other party is able to field candidates these days in all congressional and state legislative races.

But the two-party system might work just fine if term limits were to make a comeback.

Once the Republicans took over Congress in '94, they quickly found a plausible excuse for not imposing term limits on themselves. They said the idea was still sound, but that term-limiting themselves out of office might have the unintended consequence -- unintended by them, anyway -- of turning things back over to the Democrats.

In many states where term limits were passed for state legislators, it was some of those same legislators who fought the mandated end to their lawmaking tenures through court challenges or subsequent legislative maneuvers.

Even so, some states still have term limits. And in some cases, it's not only the law, it's also working as intended.

Consider Florida, where state legislators are limited to eight years in office. Florida was once on a short list of states notorious for believed rampant corruption. Now the state is perceived as having one of the cleanest lawmaking bodies anywhere.

In fact, the current termed-limited legislature there has gone so far as to end all gift-giving from lobbyists to lawmakers -- not even a cup of coffee. (Yes, there are loopholes, but those are now being looked at.)

At first, there was worry that too many green, naive legislators would be making laws in the state capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Instead, the system has matured into one that allows for an orderly system of leadership succession. (There's currently one such nasty fight going on in the state Senate. But this is an exception to the general rule. How many states can say who their next three House speakers will be? Florida can.)

Term limits serve to show lawmakers to the door before they become so entrenched and powerful that they turn into kings and queens of arrogance and self-righteousness.

Given the situation in Florida and some other states, it's little wonder that national opinion surveys show a burgeoning swell of support for like restrictions on members of Congress.

The public is growing tired of seeing the same old faces in Washington as they race for the microphones, only to prattle on using the same tired platitudes as ever, while doing almost nothing new -- ever.

Imagine Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts as a distant memory, rather than as a constant reminder of the 1960s that formed him and his brand of politics.

Or how about a media photo-op absent the dapper Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and his glistening silver semi-locks of hair?

And let's not leave out a few deserving Republicans -- deserving of being sent home, that is. Why not say "thanks for the memories" to those GOP lawmakers devoted primarily to preserving pork barrels, and to preserving their own fiefdoms of power?

Arguments against term limits remain.

"They weren't envisioned by the constitutional Framers." But neither was the direct election of U.S. senators; or, for that matter, political media campaigns funded by multi-million dollar special interests.

"Lobbyists and bureaucrats would control government." Well, in spite of that very claim by some in Florida, good laws continue to be passed. Besides, lobbyists already rule the roost in Washington, anyway. Money seems to be the real issue with lobbyist influence -- not inexperienced lawmakers needing their hands held.

The truth is that we have a dynamic Constitution designed to accommodate change.

We already term-limit presidents. Most states so the same with governors. And many people bemoan the fact that incumbent federal judges serve for life.

So before you decide to toss out of office the Republican or Democrat that you voted for last time, consider this alternative: Ask him or her for a commitment to self-limit their lawmaking careers to a reasonable time in office.

And if they put you off with that out-of-touch look in their eyes, ask them if they'll just go ahead and make this tour of duty their last.


Thanks to the many readers who accepted my challenge to formally debate my proposal last week to establish a federal petroleum regulatory commission.

Did my idea reek too much of big government? It did to me, to be truthful.

I simply wanted to provoke the argument, and to demonstrate that there can be merit in advocating or opposing both or all sides of a proposition.

Check this column space next week for the winning entry. Thanks again to all who participated.