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INCUMBENCY PARTY FIGHTS TO SAVE CIVILIZATION

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Like frontier settlers who circled the wagons while savages whooped outside the campfire's glow, members of Congress' Incumbency Party are fearful and fighting back.

They're agreed: The march of civilization and unlimited congressional terms - a lifetime, if the incumbent chooses - must be preserved.All the nation, it would appear, must be warned of the awful and uncertain future in a world where congressional incumbents could not keep running so long as life and breath were still in them.

The incumbent alarmists, appropriately, are taking a cue from one of their leaders, House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash. Foley found time in his hectic schedule this fall to march back and forth across his home state, campaigning against a referred law for state and congressional term limits.

Such a law, Foley warned the voters of the Northwest, could remove him from office, and then the state of Washington would be vulnerable to scavengers.

Imagine Congress without him as speaker, Foley suggested as he stumped the state. Californians would be siphoning Washington's water away for movie stars' pools and limousine car washes.

Foley, House speaker since 1989, was credited with defeating the term-limit referendum without being called on to explain why water and power grabs against Washington - previously regarded as far-fetched hokum - became such looming threats in the brief time he's served as speaker.

What's clear is that other members of Congress' Incumbency Party must take to the road against term limits.

The most effective argument for semi-permanent congressional incumbency has become retention of the experience and expertise of long-term members, all of whom are said to know the ropes around Capitol Hill, know how to throw the switches and levers of power, know where the bodies are buried, know more than they let on, know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em and, of course, know when the Capitol bells are signaling a vote or just a quorum call.

The case for congressional experience and expertise has been given a boost in a cruel turn of events in Illinois, where Republican redistricting in the state legislature has thrown two Democratic giants of the Congress into the same district.

Rep. Frank Annunzio, at age 76 and rounding out 28 years in Congress, gallantly stepped aside to retire when his district was merged with that of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski.

Rostenkowski, 63, has spent nearly all his adult life on the public payroll, the past 33 years in Congress, where he serves now as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

Annunzio's gallantry in choosing not to run against Rostenkowski was helped along by knowledge that the Ways and Means chairman has a re-election treasury estimated at more than $1 million.

Much if not most of that was collected from special-interest tax lobbyists who are - by no coincidence - supportive of Rostenkowski's congressional experience and expertise.

The tragic loss, one that Incumbency Party members must impress on America's voters, is that Annunzio will be gone as a subcommittee chairman of the House Banking Committee.

Annunzio's reputation there was as an experienced and expert congressman, friendly to the savings and loan industry, an eyewitness to the industry's collapse who watched and did nothing.

And to think: Some rookie congressman, with no experience and expertise, will take Annunzio's place on the committee.