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.
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 Air, PJ 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.