With John Sununu's speech to the National Press Club on Tuesday, talk of limiting congressional terms picks up a little momentum. In my own view, this is an idea whose time has not yet come, but in the political Hot Stove League it is the hottest topic around.
As President Bush's chief of staff, Sununu was spreading the presidential word. He gave no specifics, but he said Bush has decided to ask Congress for a resolution of constitutional amendment. Presumably the resolution would limit senators to two terms of six years and representatives to six terms of two years.A word of sound advice: Don't hold your breath until Bush succeeds. Congress may propose constitutional amendments "whenever two-thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary." It is doubtful that even one-third of one house would agree next year to Bush's amendment. This duck is dead before it flies.
All the same, a movement toward term limitation is beginning to stir. Oklahoma voted in September to limit the terms of its state legislators. California did the same thing in November. At least 15 other states report substantial interest in the idea.
Proponents of term limitation make these arguments: The Founding Fathers never intended for congressional service to become a career, but in recent years re-election has become virtually a sure thing in both chambers. A frequent turnover of members would assure a constant infusion of new blood. The almost despotic power of committee chairmen, especially in the House, would be curbed. In a second six-year term, a senator would not be beholden to any pressure group.
Opponents, in my view, have much the better case. It simply is not true that the House stays fixed. More than half of the representatives who will assemble next month will have served 10 years or less. A "constant infusion of new blood" would be a constant infusion of inexperience. Committee chairmen can in fact be deposed when they abuse their powers: The House just put three old war-horses out to pasture. Newcomers to Capitol Hill would be no match, at least for a while, for the bureaucrats, lobbyists and veteran staffers who are wise to the ways of Washington. Second-term senators might owe nothing to political action committees, but they would be actively courting jobs for the future.
Suppose term limitation had been in effect for last month's elections. The 12-year guillotine would have chopped off the heads of such valued members of the House as Speaker Tom Foley, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois and Les Aspin of Wisconsin, all Democrats, along with such able Republicans as Bob Michel of Illinois, Bill Archer of Texas and Bill Frenzel of Minnesota.
The carnage in the Senate would have been dramatic. In last month's elections, 16 Democrats and 13 Republicans sought re-election. One Republican (Boschwitz of Minnesota) was defeated. All the rest won their races. But if term limitation had been in effect, only nine of the 29 would have returned. Democrats would have lost Boren of Oklahoma and Bradley of New Jersey. Republicans would have lost, among others, Domenici of New Mexico and Cochran of Mississippi.
Any constitutional amendment that would deny the nation, after only 12 years, the talent and wisdom of a Sam Nunn of Georgia or a Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas is a misguided amendment. I would nip this bud before it flowers.