The Political Interest Shame on Them All

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As for Congress, the Thomas affair strips away all pretension to high purpose and supports the growing call for term limitation. California, Colorado and Oklahoma have already enacted term-limitation laws for state offices, and similar propositions will probably be on the ballot in 17 other states soon. The first legal challenge was resolved last week, when the California Supreme Court held that the right to seek office can be abridged in order to guard against "an entrenched, dynastic legislative bureaucracy."

No legislature is more entrenched and more dynastic than the one in Washington. Congress has become a ruling elite insulated from accountability to all but the interests who spend lavishly to win its attention. Attempts to level the playing field -- for example, by instituting campaign-finance reform laws that would even the odds of a challenger's unseating an incumbent -- have been regularly gutted. If real reform is beyond the capacity of Congress to fashion, the only option left is to kick the members out.

Term limitation is not a new idea. The Continental Congress precluded members from serving more than three years in any six-year period. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower advocated a cutoff, as did the 1988 Republican Party platform.

The premise of limitation is simple: if there must be life after Congress, then maybe its members will consider the national interest before their own re-election.

It is true that not all old blood is bad blood. Many and perhaps most Congressmen are qualified and competent. But together, as an institution, they are paralyzed. Expeditious action on Capitol Hill is reserved for nonsensical commemorative resolutions and reciprocal pork-barrel bills. Important issues are ducked, and contrivances like automatic spending cuts substitute for judgment.

Critics say limitation may create an even less desirable group of unresponsive incumbents -- the 31,000 congressional staff members whose power as a permanent government is already menacing. But freed from the never ending necessity to raise funds for their next campaign, legislators might find the time to lead rather than follow their staffs.

George Will recently suggested that the steady decline in voter participation reflects the electorate's satisfaction. If people were upset with the state of affairs, Will asserted, they would vote in greater numbers. As so often when he is at his most entertaining, Will was dead wrong. People don't vote because they're turned off. Term limitation could energize the potential electorate. But even if it didn't, it would, by its very terms, shake up Congress, and no one who watched last week's spectacle can deny the attraction of that.


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 500 American adults taken for TIME/CNN on Oct. 10 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling error is plus or minus 4.5%.

CAPTION: Has Bush's strong support for Judge Thomas made you more likely or less likely to vote for him for President?

Has the Senate done a good job investigating the harassment charges against Judge Thomas?

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