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Posted by on Feb 5, 2013 in Featured, Politics | 11 comments

Less Frequent Elections and Term Limits = Better Congress

Congress has consistently low public approval ratings because citizens perceive the institution as a highly politicized body that gets little important legislation enacted. One of the reasons is that elections every two years to choose members of Congress (MOC), as mandated in Article One of the Constitution, are too frequent, negatively impacting the functioning of the government as well as testing the patience of constituents.

In addition, incumbency has become such a powerful tool that some MOC are virtually assured of a lifetime appointment to that body if they choose to keep running for office. Their perpetual reelection is guaranteed even if they have contributed nothing of value to the political dialogue or the legislative process. An amendment to the Constitution is needed to increase the terms of MOC from two to three years and limit them to four of these terms, or twelve years total.

The Founding Fathers wanted members of the House of Representatives to have two year terms so they might better reflect changes in the views of their constituents. They were to be more answerable to the people than Senators who would be elected every six years by the state legislatures. However, the signatories to the Constitution could not have envisioned the way America’s democracy would evolve, and how communication would be enhanced in the future between MOC and the public by new technologies. They could not have imagined the new world of the Internet and social media that gives MOC instant feedback from their constituents on the issues of the day. The Founding Fathers would also be appalled by the low public approval ratings of the Congress they created and would try to find ways to improve that body.

With a two year term as is currently in place, MOC after their elections immediately start planning and working for their reelection campaigns. This means an inordinate amount of time devoted to fund raising and courting people to support them in the next election, as well as frequent trips away from Washington and back to their districts. In fact, campaigning for office has essentially morphed into a full time job, interfering with their duties in the House. During most sessions of the House, MOC spend more days off, which can be used for campaigning, than working on legislation, holding hearings, committee meetings, and so forth. Work weeks may be two and a half or three days rather than a full five days tending to government business.

And incumbency has become a major advantage in holding on to an elected position. It gives MOC prominence in the print media and television, providing greater name recognition than that of challengers. It greatly assists MOC in fund raising from lobbyists and special interests who want access to them. An additional bonus is that state legislatures controlled by the same party often gerrymander incumbents’ districts after the census, making him or her even more impervious to any challengers from the opposing party. This is why many partisan MOC from these “safe” districts are unwilling to compromise with the other party on critical legislation.

The Constitution was not written in stone and major changes to the mandates of the Constitution have occurred in the past. This is evidenced by the XVII Amendment that provided for the direct election of Senators, and the XV and XIX Amendments that eliminated race and sex as qualifications for voting. A Constitutional Amendment that increased Congressional terms from two to three years and limited members of Congress to four terms would help the government run more efficiently, while bringing new blood and new ideas into Congress. At least during the first year of a representative’s three year term, he or she would be able to spend more time on legislating than on getting reelected. Given public discontent with Congress, change to the institution can only be beneficial.

Resurrecting Democracy

em>A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.

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  • ShannonLeee

    Make it 4 so congress is elected during presidential elections. It will get more people out to vote…and more moderate candidates.

  • slamfu

    Personally I think Congress and the President should serve a single 6 year term and that’s it. No one ever has to run for re-election.

  • clarkma5

    I’ve been talking about making the time between election cycles longer for a decade now…I get so annoyed that our representatives are perenially either campaigning for re-election or setting themselves for re-election. We don’t want to pay the salaries of professional candidates, we want to pay the salaries of lawmakers and competent representatives! Anything that could be done to take us out of the constant election cycle media coverage and overly self-aware candidates worried about their job prospects is a good thing.

  • dduck

    Agree with all of the above. I am trying to remember a great book I read about Mexico’s six-year presidential term. It was critical as the old president spent his last two years lining up for his successor.
    Of course it would be different here. 🙂

  • zusa1

    Any changes should be small, incremental and reversible. It seems no matter how good the intention, we are highly skilled at making things worse.

  • I’m with zusai. Be careful what you wish for.

    Four year terms might be ok, but it depends a lot on who gets elected…look at the difference between 2008 and 2010. Three year terms don’t make much sense to me, but I’m willing to hear the rationale.

    Term limits sounds good, but. Those pols I’ve known say it takes into the second two year term to understand how things work. Then you need to identify and develop leadership. You’re probably, my opinion, 8 to 10 years in before most in Congress are ready, or have the following, to assume leadership. One other issue with term limits is that it tends to leave the job to bureaucrats and professional aides who know what’s happening while most members may not have the institutional history. In other words, term limits tend to transfer excessive power to non-elected personnel.

    Don’t misunderstand. I’m not against changing the system, but caution seems to be in order…especially when we’re talking about amending the Constitution which is difficult to do and also difficult to undue once done.

  • zusa1

    “In addition, incumbency has become such a powerful tool that some MOC are virtually assured of a lifetime appointment to that body if they choose to keep running for office.”

    We should not overlook the corrupting effect of earmarks either.

    “Based on the estimates in this paper, the average incumbent in 2008 receives an additional one percent of the popular vote from an increase in earmarks of about $10 million (or about $15 per capita given districts of 650,000 residents).”

  • The_Ohioan

    Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
    Like a Colossus, and we petty men
    Walk under his huge legs and peep about
    To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
    Men at some time are masters of their fates:
    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

    Nothing wrong with the Constitution. Lots wrong with the current electoral process. $$$$$$$$ You CAN beat it, but it takes time, effort, and organization.

  • dduck

    Shorter, simpler and without obstructions or delays, public financed and requirement for all to vote for national offices. Oh, I almost forgot, honest candidates.

  • ShannonLeee

    The problem with the two year system is that politicians spend one of those years concentrating on getting reelected, not doing their actual job. The Pres and some Senators have the support group required to do both jobs, most House Reps. do not.

  • dduck

    SL, agree, and the president uses his last year and a half.

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