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.
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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