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If the sink is broke, don't fix the stove

Charles N. Wheeler III


Not too many years ago, forgetting to turn off a car's headlights on a cold winter night was almost certain to guarantee a dead battery and a costly tow charge for the absent-minded motorist. Now, however, newer cars are engineered to overcome such mental lapses, and many models automatically turn off the lights a few moments after the engine is shut off. Chalk it up as another milestone in modern society's quest for effortless living.

While such no-brainer solutions are laudable in automotive matters, they might not be so desirable in public affairs. Consider, for example, the hot new issue of term limitations.

President Bush called for restricting Congressional terms in his State of the Union address in January, saying he aimed to revive "the ideal of the citizen politician who comes not to stay, but to serve." Voters in Oklahoma, California and Colorado, meanwhile, set mandatory limits on legislative service last fall, and similar proposals have been offered in most other states.

Here in Illinois, constitutional amendments have been proposed that would limit the governor and other statewide elected officials to two terms, state senators to three terms and state representatives to five terms. The measures are in a House committee, where, it can be argued, they ought to remain in perpetuity.

The push for term limits seems to reflect growing public dissatisfaction with elected officials coupled with an increasing sense of futility in dealing with entrenched incumbents. The rationale is quite simple if you can't beat them at the polls, legislate them out of office.

Advocates contend that a mandated turnover in Congress or the Statehouse would guarantee new blood and new ideas, break up cozy relationships between veteran lawmakers and the lobbyists who wine and dine them, and make it more difficult for either party to maintain a stranglehold on the legislative branch. Perhaps. But one might argue equally plausibly that term limits would result in a revolving door legislature, in which most lawmakers are either too green to know what's going on or too busy planning their future after politics to care.

Indeed, there's even reason to question the underlying premise that lawmakers are elected for life, at least in Illinois. While incumbents generally fare well at the polls, there are no guarantees. Just ask the seven former representatives, including the Republican dean of the House, who were ousted last year. (A like number did not seek reelection.)

In fact, during the decade of the 1980s, the House averaged 16 new faces a session, while on the average 34 members each session had served beyond the 10-year limit the pending constitutional amendment proposes. The current cast includes 18 freshmen and 41 in their sixth term or longer.

Senate longevity is greater, in part because senators don't have to run as often as their House counterparts. Still, 33 of the sitting 59 senators entered the upper chamber from 1983 on, and in the current session only 26 senators have served more than 10 years.

Interestingly, the turnover rate is greatest in the election immediately following redistricting, which seems to serve as a natural spur to retirement. In 1983, example, 15 new senators 13 of them with previous House experience and 30 new representatives were sworn in. Party strategists already are talking about a similar reshuffling of the legislative deck following this year's mapmaking exercise. All legislative seats are up for election following redistricting.

Though the average turnover rate of 14 percent in the House and 12 percent in the Senate during the 1980s was below the minimum 20 percent average that the proposed amendment would guarantee, the difference is hardly large enough to warrant all the other headaches that could accompany term limits.

Consider just the experience question.

6/June 1991/Illinois Issues

If knowledge is power, whose hand is strengthened when an arbitrary rule assures that no legislator has more than a decade's worth of expertise? It surely won't be that of the people's elected representatives. Though unintended, the result seems wholly predictable paid lobbyists, career bureaucrats and legislative staff, none directly accountable to the public, will see their ability to shape policy grow, while the legislature's institutional memory wanes.

The best form of term limitation is still the one envisioned by the Founding Fathers and made available to every citizen 18 or older the ballot box. If the voters want to kick a rascal out or an exemplary public servant, for that matter they are free to do so, if they choose to. It's no small irony that many of the same citizens who complain about the politicians' performance nevertheless return them to office. A national poll last fall found that while 63 percent of the folks surveyed disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job, 64 percent approved of their own representative's performance.

"Aha, the power of incumbency!" the term limit true believers might say. But if incumbents enjoy an unfair advantage under the rules of the game, why not modify the rules, rather than scrap the system? There's still time, for example, to enact a package of reform measures advanced by Rep. Thomas J. Homer (D-91, Canton) that would blunt what is perhaps the most significant weapon an incumbent enjoys in today's climate of high-tech, mega-buck campaigns the ability to raise and spend a substantial amount of money.

Putting a lid on contributions, as Homer proposes, would help even the playing field, and if the measure were broadened to include spending caps, so much the better. Shifting the primary to September from March would reduce the campaign season and thus its cost, while allowing voters to participate in the primary without declaring a party preference should boost turnout and enhance the chances of challengers.

In a representative democracy, deciding when to retire an elected official is one area in which the urge to automate should be resisted.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

June 1991/Illinois Issues/7

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