When the Constitution was adopted two hundred and twenty-six years ago, the framers agreed on two legislative bodies. The House would be represented according to population, so larger states get more representation in Congress, and they’d be elected to two-year terms. This way, it was hoped, the House would keep up with changes in public opinion. In the Senate, meanwhile, each state would have two Senators, so small states had as much a say as larger states. Senators were originally appointed by the state legislatures, until the seventeenth amendment was ratified, switching to direct election by a popular vote.
Of the possible changes we can make, one of them will be discussed here.
The term of the House of Representatives could be extended from two to four years.
In his Presidential memoirs, Dwight D. Eisenhower said:
By the end of four years [in office] I had arrived at one strong conclusion regarding the legislative process. I had become convinced that the term of members of the House of Representatives is too short. In the early days of our government it was expected that a congressman would go to the capital of the country, serve there for the months necessary for accomplishing the annual business of the Congress, and then go back to live in his own district the major part of each year. With communications slow and tortuous, it was difficult for him to keep well acquainted with the people of his own region. Undoubtedly the constitutional provision fixing the term in the House of Representatives at two years was adopted with the thought that in this way the representatives would, because of the necessity of campaigning at such short intervals, be kept closer to the people of their localities.
Today all this is changed. Mass media, the telephone, telegraph, and fast postal service have made it possible for information to flow from congressional districts to Washington and visa versa with the greatest of ease. Also, through the years, government has grown in size and has proliferated into many activities that were undreamed of when the nation was young. Sessions of Congress grow longer. If a congressman is to do his job well these days, he simply cannot be forever running for re-election. Yet this is what the two-year terms compel him to do.
This has changed even more than Eisenhower could’ve known, with the development of the Internet and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
It is but to glance at the rhetoric of the representatives in the U.S. House and see that they are constantly campaigning. Even as they are taking the oath of office, they are preparing for their next election. Constantly, their eyes are on the next election, and subsequently, they aren’t looking at the greater good, or the good of the nation. Further, since the election season is right around the corner, their rhetoric becomes more politically-driven, they are more eager to unleash zingers and shots at their opponent, hoping to capture headlines. Not only do they have the general election on their mind, but the primary as well, and getting their own party’s nomination. So Republicans appeal to the far-right, to ensure that no one claims they aren’t conservative enough, and Democrats appeal to the radical-left, to ensure that no one claims they aren’t liberal enough. The result is a Congress of hardline, radical political zealots, chiefly concerned with their own election, who spend all day thinking about the next election, every step they take is designed to maximize political gains, every word is a shot at their political opponent, every act an appeal to campaign donors, and every decision based on politics, not principle.
There is another aspect to it. Because elections are held every other year, the President is forced to deal with a shifting Congress. Often, midterm elections go against the President. In 2006, Democrats took the Congress, and George W. Bush’s final two years became gridlocked. In 2010, Republicans took the House, and Barack Obama’s agenda became obstructed.
If you had House elections timed to the general election, Congress would be relatively in tune with the President. Most of all, if the midterm elections are going to be referendums on the President, as 2006 was for George W. Bush, and 2010 was for Barack Obama, you’re effectively splitting the President’s term in half – two years he has a relatively friendly Congress that was elected at the same time he was and they loosely share the same goals and priorities, while the second half of his term is dealing with a Congress who’s aims are radically different than his, such as being hell-bent on repealing Obama-Care. This creates dysfunction in government, because Barack Obama was elected in 2008 to get healthcare reform, and Republicans were elected in 2010 to oppose Obama-Care. Thus, you get a Congress and a President perpetually at odds.
President Eisenhower said:
History shows that when the Executive and Legislative Branches are politically in conflict, politics in Washington runs riot… The public good goes begging while politics is played for politics’ sake.
In order for government to work effectively, it is necessary for government to have cooler heads in office. It doesn’t work when you have a Democratic President elected to do one thing, and a Republican House elected to do everything in their power to obstruct his agenda.
Extending House terms from two to four years would help remove some of the dysfunction between the President and an opposing Congress. It would hopefully cool some of the rhetoric, because politicians would have at least three years to focus on business before they come up for election, whereas now they almost have to begin campaigning immediately. It wouldn’t guarantee a friendly Congress, by any means. We have a system of checks and balances, separation of powers, and an independent Congress. But two-year terms for the House is too short, it turns Washington into a circus, where political theater, not statesmanship, rules the day. It creates constant campaigning and political maneuvering. It pits a President, elected in one year with one agenda, against a Congress elected in another year, with a completely different agenda. The result is a government armed against itself, with one side pulling as hard as they can left, and the other side pulling as hard as they can right, and cliffs all around. Smoother navigation is required to operate government effectively, and having a President and Congress elected at the same time would help ensure that.
What are your thoughts? Should House terms be extended to four years, or do two-year terms help hold Congress and the President accountable?
Read my previous article, on President Obama's leadership and dysfunction in government, here.