Nothing shows more clearly Americans' ambivalence toward term limits than the election results in the states that passed congressional term limits on Nov. 3.
The 14 states that approved ceilings on the terms of members of Congress also sent back to Capitol Hill 71 senators and congressmen to serve beyond the limits they set for future elections. ``I don't like incumbents,'' the voters said, ``except for my incumbent.''
It can be argued that the strength of incumbents in the recent elections is the very reason to institute term limits. Incumbents have the war chests, the name recognition and the public forum to overcome almost any political challenge. The only way to get them out is to force them out, critics say.
Yet, many federal legislators left their offices by choice this year, retiring rather than face tough re-election races. Many had reason to think the voters might not send them back to Congress. Some of those troubles stemmed from the House banking scandal or other questionable actions by the representatives.
And even if marginal members of Congress don't choose to resign, it's always possible for voters to simply exercise their own term limitations by voting them out. Incumbents often have a financial advantage when it comes to campaigning, but that doesn't mean voters shouldn't be able to size up the competition and kick out a representative that is truly not doing his or her job.
Not every long-time incumbent deserves to return to office. But by their votes on Nov. 3, voters acknowledged that a great many of them are. While saying that it is bad to have people serve in Congress too long, voters also said that some of those long-term members have served their constituents well. Why get rid of someone who's doing a good job?
On the other hand, it could be that in those states where voters approved term limits and where they also re-elected long-time incumbents, they were saying, "We'll give you one more term, but this is it, no more.''
The term limit issue is bound to come to a head soon. The question of whether individual states can set term limits for elected federal offices may be decided in the courts. In the meantime, states that establish term limits for Congress will find themselves at a definite disadvantage as they send freshman members to a body that still is dominated by senior senators and congressmen from other states.
Term limits have been kicked around for some time. Some states now have decided to put them to the test. It may be an interesting experiment to see if shuffling more bodies through Congress will actually make that body more responsible to American citizens. There is a danger it could simply shift more power to the bureaucrats and lobbyists, whose terms voters have no ability to control at all.