Eliminate Midterm Elections? Only If You Want To Make Congress Even Less Representative

Two Duke University academics make an incredibly weak, ultimately unpersuasive, argument in favor of eliminating midterm elections by changing the length of Congressional terms.

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial

Duke University Public Policy Professor David Schanzer and Duke Junior Jay Sullivan have authored a piece that was published yesterday in The New York Times that was titled “Cancel The Midterms,” presumably by some editor at the Times. Not surprisingly, the piece got some attention from conservatives on Facebook and Twitter, as well as in blog posts at Hot AirPJ Media, and Red State which are characterizing the piece as a sign of Democratic desperation in the wake of polling that indicates that the GOP is about to retake control of the Senate. In reality, the subject of the piece has little to do with the title, and instead makes the argument that we should change the terms for Members of Congress and the Senate so that they coincide with the term of the President, thus eliminating the every-two-years midterm cycle. While the headline the Times chose is both provocative and unrepresentative of the argument being made, the argument itself is quite simply incredibly weak and unpersuasive regardless of any partisan motive the authors may have allegedly had.

First of all, Schanzer and Sullivan start out with the alleged defects of two year House and six year Senate terms:

nThe realities of the modern election cycle are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.

These effects are compounded by our grotesque campaign finance system. House members in competitive races have raised, on average, $2.6 million for the 2014 midterm. That amounts to $3,600 raised a day — seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Surveys show that members spend up to 70 percent of their time fund-raising during an election year. Two years later, they’ll have to do it all again.

Much of this money is sought from either highly partisan wealthy individuals or entities with vested interests before Congress. Eliminating midterms would double the amount of time House members could focus on governing and make them less dependent on their donor base.

Another quirk is that, during midterm elections, the electorate has been whiter, wealthier, older and more educated than during presidential elections. Biennial elections require our representatives to take this into account, appealing to one set of voters for two years, then a very different electorate two years later.

None of what the authors argue here rebuts one of the main reasons that the Constitution created short terms for the House of Representatives and longer terms than the President for the Senate, namely the idea that it makes these bodies both more accountable to the people and independent of the Executive Branch. The authors concede this point at the start of their essay when they say “at our nation’s founding, the Constitution represented a new form of republican government, and it was important for at least one body of Congress to be closely accountable to the people.” However, they reject this idea in the paragraphs that follow without really providing any coherent argument for why it is no longer important for the House of Representative to be closely accountable to the people that it is supposed to represent. Instead they simply assume that it is self-evident that it is no longer the case, largely, apparently, because midterm elections are somehow now too inconvenient and expensive to be held every two years, or that it is no longer a good idea for one-third of the Senate to be up for re-election every two years. Even conceding the “negative” effects that they cite in the paragraphs quoted above, in fact, it strikes me that the arguments originally made in favor of the staggered Congressional terms that Article II established are as true today as they were when the Constitution was first debated in the wake of the Philadelphia Convention some 227 years ago.

With respect to the House of Representatives, for example, the fact that this is the body that has the power of the purse, the responsibility of being the chamber from which bills to raise revenue must originate, the body that would be responsible for impeaching the President and other Federal officers, and a whole host of other powers, it should be self-evidence why its members ought to be more directly accountable to the public via frequent elections. In fact, that seems to have been the case at the time ratification of the Constitution was being debate, that argument was accepted by all sides of the argument. The main difference between Federalists and Anti-Federalists during the ratification debates, for example, was over the question of whether terms for members of the House should be one year or two years, with Anti-Federalists arguing in factor of one-year terms. In Federalist No. 53, which has been historically attributed to James Madison, Publius pushes back on this idea by arguing that legislators need some degree of time to become familiar with the office to which they are elected and the issues that they will be called upon the deal with during their time in office. Given that the presumption at the time was that members would not serve for long periods of time, it makes sense to argue in favor of an arrangement that didn’t require members to stand for election every single year. Moreover, while two year terms may seem slightly arbitrary they make sense once you look at them in the context of the four year term for the President and the six year term for Senators. The House was meant to be the body closest to the people, after all, and frequent elections to that body were intended to ensure that. Notwithstanding the alleged flaws Schanzer and Sullivan cite, it strikes me that there’s no rational reason to change that.

While the two year terms for the House make sense given what it was meant to be, the six year terms for Senators is entirely consistent with the role it is meant to play in the Legislative Branch. Where the House exists as the popular branch, the Senate was originally intended to be the more deliberative body where presumably more seasoned and experienced politicians would exist to, in some sense cool the passions reflected in what may come out of the House. Originally, of course, this was supposed to be enhanced by the fact that Senators were appointed by state legislatures, that distinction still exists in the 17th Amendment Senate. Even with direct election, Senators are required to appeal to a different kind of constituency than Members of Congress. The one distinction, of course, is that small handful of states that, because of population, only have a single At-Large Member of Congress who runs statewide just like a Senator does. That being said, Senators generally have a different audience to appeal to and, at least in theory, they must govern differently than their colleagues in the House. Because of that, it makes sense that their terms would be longer, and that their elections would be staggered so that at least 33 Senators (under the current makeup of the Senators) are standing for re-election every two years.

Schantz and Sullivan argue in favor of four year terms for Congressman and eight year terms for Senators where the elections for each coincide with Presidential election/re-election years. Unfortunately for them, as with their argument against the current two year/six year terms that we have, they don’t really provide any coherent argument in favor of their recommendation. If anything, their prescription would make both bodies less representative and less responsive to the people than they are today, and that doesn’t strike me as a good idea. Additionally, since they appear to be arguing that the entire Senate should be up for election rather than the staggered terms we have today, they would essentially be making the Senate just a smaller version of the House of Representatives, which leads one to wonder why they just don’t call for its elimination. One reason for that, of course, is that such a move would largely be impossible given the provision in Article V of the Constitution that precludes any Amendment that changes representation in the Senate without the consent of every state in the Union. It would be difficult to say the least to get the consent of the three-quarters of the states that would be needed to make the changes that the authors already advocate. It would be basically impossible to get unanimity on the issue of eliminating the Senate. For those reasons alone, the proposal Schantz and Sullivan make, which seems like a solution in search of a problem, strikes me as the kind of academic exercise that isn’t really worth the column space that the Times gave it.

All that being said, there are obviously issues with the way Congress operates today, most of which don’t even need to be pointed out yet again at this point. There are, however, ideas short of the pointless need to change something as fundamental to the structure of the body as the length of the terms of its members that could help fix those problems. Those ideas range from changes in apportionment and redistricting that take politics out of the process, introduction at the state level of something such as Instant Runoff Voting, which would not require Congressional approval or a Constitutional Amendment, and term limits, which would of course require a Constitutional Amendment of their own. Schantz and Sullivan, however, are proposing eliminating midterms largely because they think they are inconvenient. That, however, is not a good enough reason for making either the House or the Senate less responsive and more removed from the public than they already are.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Politics 101, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. @Doug: The problem is that the current system leads to less accountability because the combination of separation of powers and frequent elections means that it is exceedingly difficult to determine who to reward or blame.

    A four year cycle would at least help determine which party was responsible for a given period of time in regards to policy outcomes.

    Also: you get two different electorates every two years and the structure of the system automatically means that the president’s party will be punished for a number of reasons.

  2. Also: appealing to the Federalist on this matter is not helpful (as it pertains to representation in the House in particular) for two key reasons:

    1. The Framers did not understand the linkage between parties and legislatures

    and

    2. They thought that the House would change composition frequently. However, the incumbent re-elect rate is actually higher in the House than in the Senate.

  3. Steven,

    Fair points, but to the extent the elections-every-two-years introduces inefficiencies into the system I would argue that those inefficiencies are a good thing. Restraining government is, at least in my opinion, a good thing.

    As for the different electorates, that is more the fault of politicians who fail to motivate people to come to the polls than it is the nature of the system.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Fair points, but to the extent the elections-every-two-years introduces inefficiencies into the system I would argue that those inefficiencies are a good thing. Restraining government is, at least in my opinion, a good thing.

    I’m not sure permanent fundraising is, all things considered, a good thing.
    I would seriously consider a proposal to make House terms 4 years and term limit them out at 12 or 16 years. Also, I’d make sure that half the seats came up for re-election every 2 years. The Senate? Term limit seats to 3 six year terms.

    Other than that, I believe that our current political dysfunction is tethered to the extremism of one party, and that too shall pass.

  5. @Doug Mataconis:

    Restraining government is, at least in my opinion, a good thing.

    Except that the inefficiencies don’t just lead to less government (the evidence of this is rather clear). It, instead, leads to things like no tax reform, no immigration reform, silly confrontations over the debt ceiling, budget impasses, and so forth.

    It really doesn’t create less government. Rather, it creates poor governance.

    As for the different electorates, that is more the fault of politicians who fail to motivate people to come to the polls than it is the nature of the system.

    Well, no. The system itself clearly makes presidential elections more important than midterms. That is a structural condition created by the system, not the result of politicians not being exciting enough.

    The system also creates a bunch of noncompetitive contests, which further suppresses voter interest. As I noted a few weeks ago–when something like 96% of the House races are practically foreordained why should folks show up to vote?

    That is structure at work.

  6. LaMont says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    As for the different electorates, that is more the fault of politicians who fail to motivate people to come to the polls than it is the nature of the system.

    Right or worng – It’s not that politicians fail to motivate voters but rathers most voters don’t see the point of voting every two years only to see that nothing really changes. The presidential elections are perceived to be the most important elections. And most, right or wrong, feel that those elections are the ones that shapes the future. It wouldn’t hurt to allign the election cycle with what is perceived by the voters to ensure proper representation. If all politcal parties really believed in the democratic process and capitalizing on voter turn-out this would be no issue. Of course we all know which party favors voter suppression.

  7. Hal_10000 says:

    I dunno. This crosses me as grumbling about a potential GOP win tomorrow. I’m dubious that he would the same thing if the Democrats were about to take the House and oppose President Romney.

  8. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Fair points, but to the extent the elections-every-two-years introduces inefficiencies into the system I would argue that those inefficiencies are a good thing. Restraining government is, at least in my opinion, a good thing.

    The way to properly restrain the government is not to introduce(or perpetuate) inefficiencies in the system, but to write better laws.

    As for the different electorates, that is more the fault of politicians who fail to motivate people to come to the polls than it is the nature of the system.

    Historically, the President’s party is punished regardless of who the President is or even how well the country is doing.

    MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Not very unusual at all.

    And the record really is that even a popular president usually don’t help that much. Ronald Reagan in 1986, Gallup poll approval rating was 63 percent. It was considered a pretty successful presidency. He had won reelection by a landslide. And he went to around 13 states around this time of October that year. Yet the result was, the Republicans lost control of the Senate, lost five seats in the House.

    So, if that’s sort of the acid test of what a popular president can do, the less popular presidents have a harder time.

    So nope, it’s the system.

  9. LaMont says:

    If anything, their prescription would make both bodies less representative and less responsive to the people than they are today

    I do not understand how aligning election cycles up with greater voter turn out would make the electorate less reprensentative and less responsive to the people. You state this Doug but do not provide a coherent argument as to why that would be the case. If you are arguing that the mid-terms should provide checks in balances to the presidential elections than I would argue that lower voter turn-out, which is dominate in mid-term elections, does nothing to represent the people.

  10. LaMont says:

    @LaMont:

    And therfore is not responsive…

  11. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @LaMont: I do not understand how aligning election cycles up with greater voter turn out would make the electorate less reprensentative and less responsive to the people.

    Because the presidential elections tend to suck up all the oxygen in the race. Essentially, the votes would end up being almost Parilamentarian; each candidate would have to carry the burden of their party’s nominee on their back. In the off-year elections, the candidates can stand or fall pretty much on their own merits.

    Presidents are still a factor in off-year elections, of course, but nowhere near as significantly in elections where there’s a presidential race at the top of the ticket.

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    Brazil does precisely that. There are four years terms for the members of the Lower House of Congress, eight years for the Senators and each four years that leads for the election of One senator(Or two senators each eight years), one member of the Lower House of Congress, one governor, a member of the State Legislative and the President.

    That does not bring to greater accountability. That confuses voters that does not know about who they are voting, and people can´t punish the Executive by voting for the opposition in a midterm election.

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    I hate to write that, but at least in part Jenos is right here, considering what I see on Brazil.

  14. LaMont says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Presidential election influence or not – the better voter-turn out is more representative and responsive to the people. The voting turn-out in off-year elections ensures even less canidate accountability. Standing or falling on the candidate’s own merit is much more likely to happen during presidential elections because of increased interest alone.

  15. Andre Kenji says:

    @LaMont:

    Presidential election influence or not – the better voter-turn out is more representative and responsive to the people.

    There are better ways of increasing voter turnout than holding elections only for each four years.

  16. LaMont says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    As I stated earlier, voters are not interested in voting more often while nothing appears to change. Voters likely perceive that presidential elections shape our future more than any other election. That will never change in a country where everyone believes that the buck stops at the President’s office. Therefore, no other election cycle will ever draw the interests of the masses. There is nothing wrong with changing the voting cycles in a way the keeps it simple and takes advantage of the masses. Mid-term elections fail to do that.

  17. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @LaMont: Presidential election influence or not – the better voter-turn out is more representative and responsive to the people.

    I have no problem with that. I see voting as a duty. If others shirk their duty to vote, then my vote weighs that much more. Plus, there’s the whole “people tend to get the government they deserve” thing.

    I don’t care for pushes to get people to vote. I’d rather voting be done by people who care to make the minimal effort it takes, as they’re more likely to actually think about the issues a little. This means that a lot of people who care about politics (like me) and hold diametrically opposed positions from me (like most of the commentariat here) are also more likely to vote, but I can live with that.

    I understand why the parties and candidates have big GOTV efforts, and don’t mind those. I just get slightly irritated with the allegedly non-partisan “it’s important you vote” silliness. Especially since the people who push it usually have a really shoddy record of actually voting themselves. Or, even worse, a twit like Cameron Diaz saying in 2004 that if enough people didn’t vote, rape would be legalized.

  18. LaMont says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    People who vote in presidential year election s only are not necessarily low information voters – although many are. Many simply feel that it is most important to vote in presidential year elections only. They will never be political junkies – they don’t have the time.

  19. Trumwill says:

    Four years seems like a pretty long time without the opportunity of a corrective. I don’t particularly consider it a bad thing when an unpopular president’s wings are clipped, as is likely to happen this year and as happened in 2006. Bill Clinton managed to escape it through his popularity. Reagan didn’t escape it, but the gains made by Democrats in 1986 are mostly attributable to a corrective of the 1980 wave (almost all of the Republican senators who were unseated were freshmen – the same thing happened in the House in 1982).

    If it’s really a problem with regard to the distribution of states among any particular class, I wouldn’t be as opposed to four year terms (or bumping up the number of senators to 150) so that every state elects (at least) one senator every two years.

  20. @Trumwill: In theory, I take the point. In reality, however, I question the notion that we get a “corrective” every two years (not given the radically non-competitive nature of those elections).

    And given the structural nature of the Classes of the Senate (as I noted in another post) is this really a case of the electorate specifically speaking about the president? And to the point of my other post, will the status quo really be all that different?

    It is my observation that we often discuss these matters as if the mythology of the Founding were reality, when it isn’t (i.e., the Framers thought the House would turn over frequently and capture the passions of the people. That isn’t what happened).

  21. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    In theory, I take the point. In reality, however, I question the notion that we get a “corrective” every two years (not given the radically non-competitive nature of those elections).

    Canceling elections to deal with uncompetitive districts seems like it’s taking the long way ’round. Even if most districts aren’t particularly competitive, a fair number of them are. Republicans won, more or less, in 2010 with the same congressional districts that the Democrats won in 2006. In the House. In the Senate…

    And given the structural nature of the Classes of the Senate (as I noted in another post)

    Like I said, if this is really a problem, then we can look at four year terms or three senators so that each state is up each two years.

    I get what you’re saying about mythology, but support for any particular aspect of the current system – particularly when by someone who is open to various changes – can’t really be reduced to that.

  22. just me says:

    I honestly think 8 years is too long for any one person to govern as president much less give that length to senators as well.

    I can maybe see an argument for 4 year terms for the house but if anything I would rather see the president serve 6 years than give senators two more years.

    As for poor voter turnout in midterms? If the voters that care turn out and that base is different from those who turn out in presidential years that’s their prerogative to opt out of voting that cycle. Nobody is telling them they can’t vote and polls are ole.

    If I had a fix for government it wouldn’t be eliminating the mid terms. It would be increasing the size of the house and eliminating all incentives to turn the house or Senate into a career. I think the problem with government is the house and Senate members focus on getting reelected and not necessarily on good governance. I think eliminating pensions would be a good start and an amendment to limit terms would be a good follow up.

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I’m gonna say one more thing. It’s not so much as a prediction as an observation.

    I think this is going to be another “negative” election, with people voting against candidates and parties instead of for them.

    2006 was a “negative” election — it was a rejection of Bush and the GOP.

    2008 was a partly negative election, again against Bush and the GOP, part triumph of hope over experience.

    2010 was another negative election, this time against the Democrats.

    2012 was an odd one. It was a default status quo, with a lot of rejection of both sides.

    I think tomorrow will be another rejection of Democrats.

  24. Todd says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Because the presidential elections tend to suck up all the oxygen in the race. Essentially, the votes would end up being almost Parilamentarian;

    Since this is how a depressingly large percentage of our population thinks the system currently works anyway, I don’t think it would necessarily bad if we did make it easier for a President to actually implement his/her agenda when elected. The way it currently works, the opposition has plenty of tools at their disposal to block most of what they don’t like, and what does get through will almost always to be inconsistent with whatever the Presidential candidate promised to enact, so supporters will be unhappy too. As a result, come the mid-term, supporters stay home to “punish” the President for not implementing an agenda that never had a chance of seeing daylight … while opponents crow about a “failed” Presidency that they are mostly responsible for helping to create.

    If we’re going to give our President’s outsized credit/blame for pretty much everything that happens in American life, they ought to at least have a better chance of actually implementing the policies that they will ultimately be held responsible for.

  25. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: There are two main kinds of politics: the politics of governing and the politics of electioneering. While the idea of House elections every two years sounds good, in practice, the politics of electioneering (particularly fundraising) are so demanding that no room is left for governing. Withal, if reasonable controls (including naming all donors) could be put on fundraising, I’d be in favor of keeping midterm elections. Otherwise, get rid of them. They’re a circus.