This essay is part of a series exploring bold ideas to revitalize and renew the American experience. Learn more about this project in a note from Ezekiel Kweku, political editor of Opinion.
The itThe ability of the US political system to implement major policies on pressing issues is hampered by features of our institutions that we take for granted and rarely think about. Take the Constitutional requirement that members of the House only sit for two-year terms.
Just a few months after the start of 'A new administration, as the country grapples with economic recovery and renewal, the actions of Congress are shaped not only by the merits of politics, but also by the upcoming midterm elections. It's not just the fall 2022 elections; many incumbents are also calculating how best to position themselves to face major potential challenges.
In almost all other democracies, this is not normal .
The two-year term in the House has profound consequences for the effectiveness of the US government - and too many of them are negative. A longer term of four years would allow Congress to s 'effectively once again tackling the major issues that Americans care about the most.
For decades, party leaders in Congress have largely come to see the first ear of a new administration as the narrow window in which pass major initiatives. During a mid-election year -mandate, leaders resist members of competitive constituencies taking tough votes. In addition, much of the discussion of "policy making" in Congress, especiallywhen control of the House is tight
The President's party almost always loses seats in the House in the midterm elections. Since 1934 this has happened in all but two semesters. Yet it cannot be true that all administrations have governed so badly that they deserve immediate electoral sanction.
So why is this happening so regularly? Presidential candidates can issue vague appeals that allow voters to see what they prefer to see. But governing requires concrete choices, and these decisions inevitably alienate some voters. In addition, 21 months (January 20 to earlyt November of the following year) is too little time for voters to judge the effects of the new programs.
One of the most important aspects more difficult in designing democratic institutions is how to get governments to act in the long term rather than the short term. The two-year term of House members does exactly the opposite.
In almost all other democracies , parliaments are in power uh for four to five years. Political scientists view voting as primarily the retrospective judgment of voters on a government 's performance. Four to five years offers a plausible time frame for this. But the comparison with members of the United States House is even more strikingthan to focus only on the two-year term. In most democracies, parliamentarians do not have to participate in primary elections; the parties decide which candidates to present. But since the advent of the primary system in the early 20th century, members of Congress often face two elections every two years.
Additionally, in most democracies, candidates do not have to fundraise all the time to run; governments generally provide public funding to political parties. The two-year term, combined with the primary elections and the constant need to raise funds individually, generates exceptional turmoil and short-term direction in our politics.
During the drafting of the Constitution, many writers and others insisted strongly on the see , as mentioned in Federalist 53, " that where annual elections end, tyranny begins ". At the time, most states held annual elections. Elbridge Gerry insisted that "New Englanders will never give up on the idea of annual elections." James Madison asked for a three-year term, arguing that the annual elections had produced too much "instability" in the states. In the initial vote, the Constitutional Convention approved a three-year term, but with four states objecting, the convention ultimately compromised over two years. The Federalist Papers then had to devote a lot of energy to pushing back the demand for annual elections.
If you think that US policy is not enough chaotic, imagine if the Constitution passed annual parliamentary elections.
An argument in favor of the two-year term is that it provides important control against exceptionally bad or dangerous administrations. (Certainly those who thought this way about the Trump administration were happy to have the opportunity to give Democrats control of the House in 2018.) Other Democracies have found a different way to Guard against this possibility, even though their governments normally have four to five years to govern before voters are asked to judge their performance at the polls. The mechanism is a vote of no confidence; if a majority of a parliament votes to distrustgovernment, a new election takes place or a new government is formed.
As interim checks on the government, midterm elections and votes of no confidence possible differ considerably. No-confidence votes, when successful, function as an exceptional control over governments. The midterm elections are a much cruder tool; in addition to the political turmoil they bring, they systematically punish practically all administrations. This is not to advocate a vote of no confidence, which would have far-reaching implications for the U.S. government, but to point out that a two-year legislative term is far from the only way to provide interim control. on elected governments.
This is unrealistic under current political conditions, but thanks to a constitutional amendment, a four-year termre years for members of the House, corresponding to presidential terms, could be established. Longer terms may well facilitate a greater ability to forge a bill in the House, as MPs are not constantly faced with primary voters. With a third of the Senate still in the mid-term election, voters would retain ways to express their dissatisfaction with an administration. Give the minority party to the House greater power to initiate hearings and other measures would be another way of providing more effective interim oversight of a administration.
In discussions of the structural elements of the Constitution that we may well not adopt today, the two-term mandate hasns for the House is rarely noticed. (The focus is usually on the electoral college, Senate, or the lifespan of federal judges.)
Yet, as demonstrated by d ' other democracies, there is nothing inherently democratic about a two-year term. We fail to recognize how distorting it is that soon after a president is elected our politics are turned upside down by the calculations and political maneuvering required by the midterm elections and their still looming primaries.
Richard H. Pildes, professor at New York University School of Law, is the author of the casebook "The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process "and the editor of" The Future of the Voting Rights Act . "
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