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Term Limits and States

AMERICANS should not take amiss the Supreme Court's decision May 22 that struck down the right of states to set term limits on members of Congress.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the court did not render an opinion on the merits of setting such limits. ''It is not our province to resolve this longstanding debate,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

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What the decision did establish was that a constitutional amendment, not a ''patchwork'' of state laws, is the correct way to limit the number of years that United States senators and representatives may serve. Such an amendment would place congressional term limits on the same basis as the existing two-term limit on the president, enacted as the 22nd amendment in 1951.

The process of amending the Constitution is not easy, nor should it be. But Congressional term limits represent a change in the basic structure of the federal government. The issue deserves the prolonged, thoughtful discussion among elected officials and the public at large that the amendment process provokes.

Last November's elections tossed out a number of veteran legislators, including House Speaker Tom Foley; elected a large class of freshmen; and swept the Republicans into power in both houses. After these results, the public may decide that the Constitution is functioning just fine as it is.

Although the court didn't rule on the merits of term limits, it did an important service in buttressing the primacy of federal over states' rights. The plaintiffs in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, citing the 10th Amendment that gives states any powers not reserved by the Constitution to federal government, said Arkansas (and by implication 22 other states with term-limit laws) had a right to set additional requirements on its representatives beyond those of age, citizenship, and residency prescribed in the Constitution.

But the court held that the states cannot reserve rights that they never held. And it confirmed that members of Congress are federal, not state, officials. As Justice Stevens wrote, ''Members of Congress are chosen by separate constituencies but ... they become, when elected, servants of the people of the United States. They are not merely delegates appointed by separate, sovereign states; they occupy offices that are integral and essential components of a single national Government.''

With this ''single national Government'' under siege from those who want more powers wielded by states, that was a point worth reconfirming.

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