Gingrich set to lose fixed terms bill

Back in 1788, they were rejected by the Constitutional Convention. Two centuries on, the idea of fixed limits on Congressmens' terms looks doomed to fail again, in another setback to the revolution promised by the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and the Republicans' "Contract with America."

Yesterday, the House of Representives began a debate on the issue, in which high rhetoric and low hypocrisy will be on display. The fact is that none of the four versions of term limits under discussion commands the two-thirds majority of 290 votes required to change the constitution. In the Senate, the prospects are even bleaker.

"America," thundered Mr Gingrich this week, "standing on the doorstep of the 21st century, no longer needs or desires a class of permanent career politicians who are there to solve each and every problem." But not only are most House Democrats opposed to term limits, so are a fifth of the 230 Republicans. Many more probably object privately to the measure.

Least popular is the most radical option, limiting House members to three terms, or six years on Capitol Hill, and Senators to two six-year terms.

The other variants, which call for a 12-year maximum for both chambers, are believed to be about 50 votes short of the 290 figure. Term limits have been adopted at local level by about two dozen states. Among the electorate there is little argument. About 70 per cent, or more, support the idea.

To opponents, term limits are harmful, depriving Congress of talent. They are not neccessary, as voters decide every two years whether their Congressman has been around too long.

Supporters of term limits say that come election time, the financial cards are stacked against a challenger, in the scramble for campaign funds. They say Washington breeds a permanent ruling lite, no longer in touch with the voters. The experience of recent years bears them out. In 1994, 90 per cent of incumbents won re-election, a rate of return that would have done the old Soviet Union proud.

Reformist groups havelaunched television ads to co-incide with the debate. "Midnight pay raises, bounced checks, fat pensions," says one spot. "Is it any wonder they don't want to give it up, by passing term limits?" Curiously, every sign is thaton the talk shows, the issue has lost much of its steam. Term limits may fall, but few politicians may fall with them.

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