Term limits in Congress will add a bit of fresh air to a stodgy institution, says one Ventura County lawmaker. Or drain the place of its institutional memory, says another.
As the House prepares to vote today on a constitutional amendment to limit terms in the House and Senate, Ventura County Reps. Anthony C. Beilenson and Elton Gallegly have lined up on opposite sides of the controversial matter.
Gallegly, a Republican from Simi Valley who is in his fifth term, argues that a limit on terms that applies equally across the country would keep Congress responsive to the electorate and end the lifelong stronghold that some politicians have held on their offices. He agreed to support term limits in the fall as part of the GOP "contract with America."
"There's no question it takes a little time to become familiar with the legislative process," Gallegly said. "If it takes someone 12 years to find their way around here, we have someone who shouldn't be here to start with."
But Beilenson, a Democrat representing parts of Thousand Oaks, worries that forcing out all veteran lawmakers will interfere with governing and prevent anyone from gaining expertise on complicated foreign policy and budgetary issues. The voters can limit terms every time they enter the ballot box by voting for someone else, said Beilenson, who was first elected in 1976.
"Imposing a term limit is like saying the American people cannot be trusted to meet the challenge of self-government," Beilenson said on the House floor Tuesday.
The main bill under consideration this week, introduced by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), would limit members of the House and Senate to 12 years in office. That's the version Gallegly has signed on as a co-sponsor and intends to support.
But three alternative options are also being debated.
Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Pete Peterson (D-Fla.) introduced a version that would apply the 12-year limit retroactively to sitting members of Congress and allow states to impose shorter limits. Introduced as a tactical device, it is given no chance of passage.
A hard-line bill by Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S. C.) would impose a six-year ban on House members and 12 years on senators. Another proposal, by Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), would impose a 12-year ban in the House and Senate but allow states to impose stricter limits if they choose.
None of the proposals appear to have the two-thirds support, or 290 votes, required in the House for an amendment to the Constitution. So the final word may come from the U. S. Supreme Court, which is reviewing the constitutionality of an Arkansas term-limits measure and is expected to rule soon on whether states can limit the terms of federal officials.
The legality of California's own six-year limit on House members and 12-year limit for senators, which voters approved in 1992, depends on the court's ruling.
Despite their different views, Beilenson and Gallegly agree that California loses clout in Congress to other states if it enforces a term limit of its own.