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The Methuselah Congress

The Methuselah Congress is part myth, part fact. At election time, barely half the senators and less than half the House will have been around 12 years or longer. There's turnover, all right. The problem is that for the most part members leave only when they want to. Some people want to address that with a constitutional amendment that would limit members to 12 years in each house. It's a simple, populist approach with enormous crowd appeal. But it's the wrong solution. This is a democracy. If the voters want to keep a Sam Nunn, a Sam Gibbons, a Lawton Chiles or a Bill Young as long as he is willing to serve, why not let them? But they also ought to have the chance to throw someone out, a chance the system rarely gives them.

While Senate incumbents sometimes have a rough time at re-election, for most House members it's a cakewalk. Of the 409 who sought new terms in 1988, only seven were defeated. Of the 402 who returned, 384 won by at least 10 percentage points, and 68 of them did not even have major party opposition.

It's much easier for an incumbent than a challenger to raise money, and to do it early enough to discourage potential opponents from running. One reason so few House members had serious opposition last time was that they had stockpiled $68-million in campaign funds a full year before the election. That included 65 who each had at least $300,000 in the bank. About the only time a well-financed incumbent is kicked out is when his conflicts of interest become scandalous enough for the voters to smell.

The obvious remedy for regal incumbents is to remove some of their

advantages and give potential opponents a fair shot at them. That means providing partial public matching funds as an inducement to candidates to accept predetermined spending limits. Senate Republicans filibustered that bill to death in the last Congress, even though it would have given their party a fairer shot at turning out incumbent Democrats. Contributions from special interest political action committees need to be severely limited if not banned. "Soft money" loopholes that allow corporations and labor to contribute in the guise of voter registration drives or other "party-building" activities need to be closed somehow. Candidates who have money left over at the close of a campaign should have to return it to their donors or contribute it to charity.

There must also be meaningful restrictions on the much-abused power of the frank. There is no justifiable reason for any mass campaign mailing in the guise of a newsletter or opinion survey. If incumbents are allowed to campaign at public expense, challengers deserve the same opportunity.

Limitations on terms would make sense in other situations, such as for city councils that combine the lawmaking and administrative powers of government, and for the elected Florida Cabinet, an anachronistic institution that improperly dilutes the governor's power and ought to be abolished. Applied to Congress, however, the price could be too high. National defense and federal budget issues are enormously complicated and take years to master. To get rid of a Sam Nunn or a Les Aspin arbitrarily would serve no one's purposes but those of the defense contractors and brass hats who don't want Congress asking too many informed questions.

Members of Congress may not have the option of doing nothing. State legislatures are swarming with ambitious young politicians who could force Congress to disgorge the two-term limit by calling for a constitutional convention. Why not, at long last, simply enact campaign finance reform?