When Sen. Paul Wellstone announced recently that he is withdrawing his pledge not to seek a third term, cries of outrage were notably absent. This would have been unthinkable when Wellstone made the pledge when he first ran in 1990.
That's because Washington Republicans, chafing at being so long out of power in Congress, came to believe incumbency gave Democrats an unfair advantage in elections, and the idea caught fire across the country. Conservative ardor cooled considerably, however, when the Republicans gained control of both houses in 1994.
Term limits still had currency outside the beltway though. Nineteen states adopted restrictions within the past decade. The idea whose time never came on a federal level was finally tested. But many think term limits has failed the test. Measures to repeal or loosen the limits are pending in 10 of the 19 states.
The forced removal of veteran lawmakers has caused an experience shortage in many legislatures. Too many rookies have been left to deal with complex issues, and critics say they're being outmaneuvered by more experienced lobbyists and bureaucrats. Another problem the skeptics see is difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates, who are inclined to be less interested in campaigning for a job they can keep only six years.
It's too early to sound the death knell. It must be noted that term limits repeal was rebuffed in six states last year. And the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Term Limits has vowed to wield its clout to oppose repeal efforts in states such as Oregon where term limits are most at risk.
Still, it appears Wellstone can rest easy. Observers who used to fulminate at the slick operators in elective office, who manipulate the legislative process like a game, are now wondering if they aren't better off with people in power who know how the game is played. Experience counts as much in politics as in everything else in life.
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