President Bush’s active support for a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms will bring added momentum to that already burgeoning movement. It will also bring heightened controversy.
That’s the view of both advocates and foes of the effort in the wake of the disclosure Tuesday by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu that, starting with his State of the Union address, the President will press for an amendment that “deals with the problems associated with perpetuating the public life of those who are elected to govern people.”
Said Sununu: “The reality that incumbency breeds a very different attitude is now sensed by the public.”
“We’re very excited about this,” said James Coyne, a former Pennsylvania Republican congressman and co-chairman of the 100,000-member Americans to Limit Congressional Terms, which has affiliated organizations in 33 states. “This helps us keep the issue before the public.”
But Lew Uhler, another term-limit strategist who helped draft the successful initiative to limit legislative terms in California, worries that Bush’s support will “partisanize” the issue and make it harder for term-limit backers to enlarge their ranks.
“We don’t want to scare away anybody from the Democratic Party or any other party,” Uhler said.
Even proponents of an amendment to limit service, usually to 12 years, concede that the possibility of its adoption remains years in the future. But nearly everyone agrees that Bush’s backing will increase the impact of the issue on national politics as the 1992 campaign heats up.
“It gives it focus and credibility,” said Republican Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, a leading congressional proponent of term limits. “It shows that this is not something on the back burner.”
More politicians now will be forced to take a stand on the issue, analysts said. As for Bush, the proposal gives him a popular plank for his 1992 reelection platform.
“For the President, it has the plus side of identifying him with a movement that enjoys almost visceral support from a majority of voters,” Brookings Institution fellow Tom Mann said.
The notion of limiting congressional terms has lurked in the background of national politics for many years and generally has had public support.
A combination of factors has pushed it to the forefront in the last two years. They include growing cynicism about politics in general, concern about the rising influence of special interests, scandals involving prominent lawmakers and the apparent inability of Congress to resolve such thorny problems as the budget deficit.
Moreover, Democrats complain, a favorite Republican theme has been to attribute those and other shortcomings on Capitol Hill to the excesses of the long-term incumbency enjoyed by their Democratic adversaries.
Public dissatisfaction with state legislatures has been growing, too, for similar reasons. This was signaled in last month’s midterm elections, when three states, California, Oklahoma and Colorado, adopted limits on legislative terms. And, for good measure, Colorado slapped a 12-year ceiling on service for members of the federal House and Senate, but the legality of that is likely to be challenged in court.
In addition, earlier in the year, legislatures in South Dakota and Utah adopted resolutions calling on Congress to convene a constitutional convention to adopt a term-limit amendment.
Since the election, the drive to change the Constitution has picked up steam. Just last week, term-limit proponents from around the country gathered in Washington to plot strategy under the aegis of Americans to Limit Congressional Terms. And a similar meeting is scheduled for today in San Jose, Calif., sponsored by Lewis Uhler’s National Tax Limitation Committee. This group originally was formed to help push through a balanced-budget amendment.
Many analysts see a term-limit amendment as mainly benefiting Republicans because they believe that it would cut the power of Democratic incumbents who have controlled the House since 1954 and dominated the Senate for most of those years.
“It’s only natural that whoever has the vested interest in preserving the status quo is going to oppose the proposal,” he said.
McCollum argues that only through term limits can members of Congress be freed to do their jobs, shielded from the pressures of reelection concerns and the abuses of the seniority system. As for charges of partisan gain lodged against the GOP, McCollum cites polls that show broad public support--as high as 70%--for term limits.
Democrats scoff at such lofty talk. Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown dismissed the news that Bush would throw his weight behind the term-limit idea as “diversionary babble.” Said Brown: “Republicans can’t win elections so they want to exclude Democrats from running.”
Nevertheless, the term-limit movement has attracted nonpartisan support from good-government advocates such as Ralph Nader.