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Term-Limits Tango Slows Down

Term limits for lawmakers were a vibrant grass-roots movement in the early '90s. They were part of the 1994 GOP "Contract with America," and before the decade was out, 21 states adopted them - mostly through voter initiative.

But the movement has run into serious speed bumps. First, the US Supreme Court ruled that limits could not apply to members of Congress, whose qualifications for office are set by the US Constitution.

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Then, in more recent years, the highest courts in three states invalidated limits on how long state legislators can stay in office. Oregon's court took that step in January.

Now, Idaho's legislature has become the first lawmaking body to throw out the limits. It did so despite the governor's veto of the measure and voters' three-time approval of the limits on state ballots over the years.

Why would politicians take such a risk? Because in Idaho and other states, the feeling has been growing that term limits have good intentions but bad results. They drive from state houses the expertise and institutional memory needed for effective legislating. They actually give lobbyists greater leverage with often ill-informed, green lawmakers. And, quite simply, they deprive voters of a full choice of candidates.

On the other side of the balance, are a need for fresh faces and some brakes on the power of incumbency. But the arguments against limits win out, and their rollback is likely to continue in the other 17 states that still have them.

That, however, will be a slow process. Only three other states, in addition to Idaho, give their lawmakers power to nullify term limits. In the rest, limits have been voted into state constitutions, and a voter referendum will be needed to remove them.

If voters don't want lawmakers to stay in office too long, they always have the option to simply vote them out. Much power lies in the ballot.


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