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Federal Term Limits: Is This the Answer? : California's frustrated voters should fully assess initiative

June 14, 1992

Voter frustration with the policy gridlock in Washington is palpable this election year. We share that frustration. But we nonetheless have questions about one proposal designed to break the stalemate: congressional term limits.

An initiative has qualified for the November ballot that would amend the state Constitution by imposing term limits on California's congressional delegation. Backers of the measure say voters in at least 12 other states will consider similar measures this fall. Under the California initiative, members of the House of Representatives would be barred from the ballot if they had served six years or more in the previous 11 years. U.S. senators would be barred from the ballot if they had served for 12 years or more in the previous 17.

THE LOCAL LEVEL: The California measure follows a 1990 initiative that won voter approval and limited the terms of the governor, legislators and other elected state officials. The first term limitations in Sacramento will activate in 1996.

In our view, term limits are not bad, per se. We have endorsed them for local governments and supported a milder version of the state term limits initiative when it was on the 1990 ballot. But there are serious questions about the constitutionality of state-imposed federal term limits.

In 1990, Colorado became the first--and so far the only--state to limit the terms of its congressional delegation. (Washington voters defeated a similar measure last year.) Colorado's delegation has not yet challenged this measure in court but will do so when individual representatives begin to bump up against that state's eight-year limit.

In the meantime, no case has yet tested the specific issue of whether term limits for Congress are constitutional. Many experts believe that federal courts will determine they are not. In a string of voting rights cases in recent decades federal courts have held that individual rights constrain the power of states in setting elections. These cases, involving reapportionment, due process guarantees and one-man, one-vote requirements, have significantly abridged state power. A federal constitutional amendment, applying to Congress members from all states, might be a sounder approach.

Many question, as well, whether term limits are necessary for turnover in Washington. This election season would seem to demonstrate otherwise. A record number of Congress members, including many long-time incumbents, won't seek reelection in November. Many said that they too were demoralized by the gridlock in Washington on issues such as health care and the federal deficit. Others resigned because they feared they would not be reelected.

Voter antipathy is one reason for their concern; reapportionment is another. In California, as in other states, reapportionment of congressional (and state legislative) districts following the 1990 census has exposed many "safe" seats to intense races.

THE FEDERAL LEVEL: Term limits certainly would produce regular turnover. Limits on the California delegation, however, would also undercut severely the state's power and influence on federal policy. Ironically, the vote on congressional term limits will come just as Californians choose a record 52 members for the House. Those numbers could give the state's delegation enormous clout, and some longtime California representatives already occupy powerful positions in the House. But if the measure passes, the state's senators and representatives would be forced out after 1998, while Congress members from non-limited states would be able to continue in office.

All these are reasons why California voters, many frustrated with business as usual in Washington, need to give this latest term-limits initiative very careful thought before it comes to a vote.

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