Limits to Power of Term Limits : GOP is divided on length of service in the House

With Republicans in charge now in Congress, congressional term limits are at the forefront. Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, the new chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, suggests that having a GOP majority in the Senate and the House "cleanses any argument that this (issue) is a means to an end" for his party.

Maybe so, but having moved into larger offices, will Republicans retain enthusiasm for term limits, which they promised in their "contract with America" to vote on in the first 100 days? Note the stance of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who now is against a six-year House limit, favoring instead a 12-year ceiling. This reflects a division that exists even within the GOP.

A PUBLIC DEMAND: Having Congress consider the issue certainly will move the debate beyond the narrow legal question of whether the states have the power to enact congressional term limits (we don't think they do). The public seems to favor term limits of some kind, and there are sound arguments for rotation in public office to freshen the public-policy process. As more term limits appear at various levels of government, there surely will be more musical chairs open for citizen legislators to sit in.

But the term limit issue is complicated. California voters found that out when they had to decide between competing ballot measures for the Legislature in 1990. They were presented with a reasonable and nuanced proposal, Proposition 131, and the harsh Proposition 140, which, given the electorate's anger, passed by an even larger margin than 131 and thus became law.

Today, although the Republican congressional caucus is generally united, one need look no further than Cox's own uniformly Republican Orange County delegation to find further evidence of members differing on how long legislators should be allowed to serve.

Congress historically has had little discussion on the subject. There is uncertainty about what term limits would accomplish. Advocates do not agree on what effect a change would have on Congress' power. The new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), flatly opposes term limits.

NO MAGIC BULLET: Experience cannot be much of a guide, either. With term limits still under judicial review, nobody knows, for example, what effects eventually might come from California's Proposition 164, the 1992 initiative that would limit service in the House to six consecutive years and in the Senate to 12 consecutive years.

Of the two term limit proposals in the "contract with America," the one imposing a limit of 12 years in both House and Senate seems fairer. But while the door should be kept open, term limits shouldn't be viewed as a magic bullet for good government; there also must be meaningful campaign finance reform, which Congress has been unwilling to enact.

The election of 1994, which changed the political equation in Congress, offers much to ponder. One of the things the election did was put a question mark over the need for any sort of term limits. Unaided, the voters showed how much power and resolve they already can muster to shake things up.

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