Rookie Politicians Just Can't Bring Home the Bacon

If you're one of the lucky few who comprehend the labyrinth known as the nation's capital, you may understand why Proposition 164, the ballot measure that would impose term limits on California members of Congress, comes at a bad time for the Southland.

Term limits, themselves, aren't a bad idea. They've worked well for a pretty important office, President of the United States. Tom Bradley proposed a two-term limit for mayor when he ran in 1973. If he had followed up on it, he would have been spared the miseries of his last two terms.

The jury is still out on the legislative term limits imposed by California voters two years ago. No senator or Assembly member has yet been term-limited out of office. But there have been heavy staff reductions mandated by the measure, and despite them, it's safe to say the Legislature isn't any worse than usual.

Term limits for the men and women who represent the Golden State in Congress, however, are something else. Only Colorado has taken this step, although other states are considering it.

Given L.A.'s historic dependence on the bounty delivered by what Ronald Reagan used to call "the puzzle palaces on the Potomac," congressional term limits for California would be unilateral disarmament.

Term limits mean new faces--rookies who would be chopped up and thrown away by canny old congressional veterans from other states. In Washington, the prizes go to the survivors who have climbed the seniority ladder into the leadership of the many committees and subcommittees that actually write legislation.

Climbing the ladder takes more patience than skill. Most times, all you have to do is stick around and follow the advice given me by a long-ago editor: "Keep your nose clean, kid, and you'll go far."

Such a man is Rep. Glenn M. Anderson of Harbor City, who is retiring from Congress at the age of 79 after 24 years of service.

There was a lot of history in those 24 years--the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Reagan conservative revolution. But Anderson's name is on none of it. His name is found elsewhere, on the Glenn M. Anderson Ship Channel in the harbor; on the Glenn M. Anderson (formerly the Century) Freeway; on a plaque in the Metro Rail station at 7th and Flower streets.

These are his projects, the life's work of a shy, inarticulate man so forgetful that his wife, Lee, once said: "I've always had to stand beside him and whisper him things." On the infrequent occasions I've interviewed him, he'd tense up even on routine questions.

But Anderson knew how to nurse his projects through the Capitol maze, through committees and subcommittees that seldom make the papers, such as Merchant Marine. When Metro Rail was under tremendous fire in Los Angeles, Anderson--oblivious to the attacks--steered it through the surface transportation subcommittee, the full Public Works Committee, Appropriations, Rules, and finally to the House floor.

It wasn't called the Metro Rail bill. Old fox Anderson knew better than that. It was part of a huge omnibus bill, with money for transit projects all over the country. By the time the bill hit the House floor, Anderson had made so many deals with other congressional barons from New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and New York that Metro Rail's future was assured.

Today, thousands of men and women are employed planning and building Metro Rail, a tremendous economic boon to a city suffering through some of the recession's worst pains. Hundreds more are working on another Anderson project that traveled the same circuitous route, the double-decking of the Harbor Freeway.

Anderson is finally retiring. But term limits would have removed him many years before, and the money that created so many jobs would have gone elsewhere.

Another example is the big water bill being pushed through Congress by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). The bill has the effect of shifting water from Central Valley agriculture to urban and suburban areas. The Southland business community is pleased. More water means more development and more construction jobs.

The rookie George Miller of 1974 couldn't have won approval of such controversial legislation. By the same token, the George Miller of 1992, with all of his power and smarts, wouldn't have won this year if the wily old Central Valley congressional barons--Biz Johnson, John McFall and B. F. Sisk--had still been in Congress, protecting their agribusiness constituents.

Some reformers, political science professors and do-gooders dismiss this as the worst kind of pork barreling. They want to throw out the pork, and the congressional butchers who divide it up.

But if you've lost a job in a recession that may go on for years, the pork looks pretty good. You don't want it going to Georgia, New York or Illinois.

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