“Don’t Vote, it Only Encourages Them” goes the bumpersticker, and it is only one among many signs of voter unrest. Another proposal, newly revived and cropping up in states like Oklahoma and South Dakota, is to reform Congress by limiting congressional terms. Back in 1978 two then-freshman senators, John Danforth and Dennis DeConcini, sponsored legislation that would limit the tenure of representatives in Congress to twelve years, or two terms for senators, six terms for congressmen. Gallup found at the time that 60 percent of the public favored the idea. In 1984 Jack D. Douglas, a sociologist at San Diego, took one step further and suggested that all our representatives be limited to a single term.

The most recent proposal, from Americans to Limit Congressional Terms and with a 70 percent public approval rating, goes back to Danforth-DeConcini—two men who twelve years later are still in office, by the way—and would limit senators and congressmen to twelve years. Such limits would solve the present problem of incumbents-for-life, and give new energy to elections in which incumbents now enjoy the wolf’s share of the PAC money (so necessary for those expensive campaigns) and a 98 percent chance of being returned to office by their gerrymandered districts.

It’s a very appealing idea. Unfortunately, as I believe the author of the bumpersticker understands better than congressional reformers, without restoring the character of the American politician, true political reform is impossible. The more things may change, the more the Teddy Kennedys and Alan Cranstons of this world will remain the same and remain in power. Just look at term limits in Mexico. Mexican law prevents any man from being president for more than one six-year term, and I hardly need to point out that this limit has done nothing for voter empowerment there. In Mexico’s effectively one-party system, the choice of the next president falls to the president in office (and through him the PRI power structure).

The same is true here in one-party cities like Chicago or states like Kentucky, where the battle for mayor or governor is settled in the primary, with the ruling party’s choice enjoying the advantage. The same is also true for any race in which an incumbent is running. Given the difficulties of ousting an incumbent, our United States are essentially a nationwide patchwork of one-party strongholds. Mexico City has little on us.

Even should the term-limit reforms go through, what’s to prevent our next Tip O’Neill from spending eight years in Congress, twelve years in the Senate, and then as much time as the party will allow him as Massachusetts’ governor or as a federal appointee? In each race after his first he will still have the advantages of incumbency and name-recognition, and despite limited terms he could enjoy a good 25-years plus on the public payroll, spending tax money, (In Mexico, because of the limited terms and the six-year rollover in ruling cliques, politicos at all levels are very dependent on the political bureaucracy for keeping them in jobs when they or their patrons are out of power. Institutionalizing that further here is not what I would call an improvement.)

No: there is a better way to send a message to Congress that reform is needed. It is for the several states to mandate a “None of the Above” box on every ballot. Let’s say your choice is, as here in Illinois in the governor’s race, between Neil Hartigan, the Democrat (or presently the “Outs” party candidate, in terms of the governor’s mansion), and Jim Edgar, the Republican (or “Ins”) candidate. The biggest issue of the campaign is taxes—and both men are pro-tax, arguing only about how much of the two-year “temporary” tax hike of 1989 should be made permanent (nothing is so permanent as temporary change, especially when the change ups your taxes) and at what rate other taxes need to rise.

For those citizens who are, wistfully, of the “read my lips” school of taxpayer satisfaction, it’s hard to get too excited about either man. Given that kind of contrariness, next November 6 those Illinoisans are going to stay home, clean their ovens, and join the swelling ranks of apathetic nonvoters.

Give them a “None of the Above” box, however, and they would suddenly have a vote to cast whether or not the Ins and Outs had fielded an appealing candidate.

To work, “None of the Above” needs to be more than a message: it needs some teeth. Should “None of the Above” win the most votes, no candidate could be returned. No mandate, nobody in the seat. My prediction is that in the first year of this reform (should it catch on nationally) nobody would occupy a good third of the House seats and a quarter of the Senate. The joke for years has been that your local congressman is at his best when he’s on a junket to Bimini or legislating Grandparents’ Day and National Granola Week, and that we are most in trouble when he actually turns his attention to what is supposed to be his job. Here is the voters’ chance to have Nobody for Congress, who can do nothing at all. Given the nature of our representatives today, “taxation without representation” is looking very attractive.

I am talking here about a fed-up public going on strike; not leaving the Union, quite, but seceding from the dirty business of government for a term or two (or more—why not?) in an effort to communicate to the national parties that their men of so-called sterling character look more like nickel silver. Having a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who have made a nice interparty gentleman’s agreement not to use the snuck-on-through congressional pay raise as a campaign issue, is no choice. What every state, county, city, and township needs is the power of the Great Nay.

Just think of it: Nobody in the Senate messing around with the Bill of Rights, Nobody in the V.P.’s office flying by Air Force Two to attend the funeral of some Latin American strongman the voters have never heard of. Nobody in the House moving to send pots of money to a country that only last week was our sworn blood enemy. Nobody teasing his hair or powdering his nose for his appearances on C-SPAN, Nobody, to rewrite Alexander Haig here for a minute, in charge. As Jerry Rubin put it—who for all his many faults once understood the crying need today for practical jokes in public life—the power to define the situation is the ultimate power.