Friday, July 09, 2004

Why elect Representatives every two years?

Holding Congressional elections every two years seems to me a waste of time, energy and money. Why not every four years? After all, Senators are put through the vetting process only once every six years. What’s magic about two years for Representatives?

When first I asked myself this question, without having actually sought enlightenment other than from within my own thoughts, I concluded that this was a practical measure on the part of the Founders to accommodate the exigencies of travel and communications as experienced in their day. After all, getting to and from Washington was not an easy venture in the late 1700’s as is so vividly described by David McCullough at the beginning of his biography of John Adams. No mean feat, indeed. And as was the case prior to the invention of the telegraph, communication proceeded at the pace of transportation, whether by ship, horse or foot – smoke signals and native drums notwithstanding. I don’t know about you, but in today’s electronic, fiber optic, via satellite instantly connected world, I find that notion essentially inconceivable.

So as my thoughts went, I assumed they picked two years as a good measure for the purposes of getting elected, moving to Washington, doing the peoples’ business, and returning for reporting to the people -- followed by re-election or condemnation as the case may be. Then there could be no weekend trips back to the home district. The mail – as slow as it may today sometimes seem – was certainly much slower. Mr. Franklin had flown his kite to ascertain that lightning was electricity but electrons were as yet undiscovered let alone harnessed. This certainly was a rather restrictive state of affairs when it came to representing one’s constituency.

However, I could not have been more wrong. The Founders were a hardy lot and such considerations, though of practical import, were not of paramount importance when designing the Constitution. In deciding the term of office for Congressional representatives the primary concern was answerability, adherence to the wishes of the people. For as they so soundly reasoned, the longer the term of an elected official, the less responsive must he be to his constituency. For if one were elected once, for life, one would not be obligated at all to listen to the vox populi, would one? Many of those debating the Constitution wanted a term shorter than two years just to keep the Reps responsive, if not honest.

An important consideration behind specifying a prudently short term of office for the representatives was the past conduct of the English Parliament, who had on one occasion arbitrarily lengthened their term of office from three to seven years. Not being inconveniently restricted by any written constitution that formalized the governmental structures and procedures outside of Parliament’s own authority, they could do as they pleased regarding their term. How convenient! (Said in the manner of Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.)

Thus did our Forefathers see the need for a formal, mutually agreed upon governmental structure that could not be arbitrarily circumvented by those comprising the government. Changing the structure or rules would be cumbersome and time consuming and thus not easily could those in power restructure things to their personal or collective advantage. These guys really were thinking well ahead. But their wisdom is not so much in what they came up with, for their concerns were founded upon the recorded experiences of history, but that they actually took the time to debate, argue and finally agree upon a system that had their collective knowledge and experience imbedded in the result. That the process actually lead to something seemingly without fluff, adornment or self-aggrandizement being the mainstay is what amazes me. This seems such a far cry from today’s political process that one has a difficult time appreciating what that process can and should be.

So, should we change the term of office for Congressmen? If we went to four- rather than two-year terms we could possibly reduce the amount of politicking that Representatives must nearly continually engage in just to stay in office. Whether or not this would lead to a concomitant reduction in campaign expenditures is, I would think, open to debate. There seems no limit to how much is spent to obtain or retain office and the numbers go up every election cycle. Lengthening Congressional terms seems unlikely to reverse that trend.

Having mid-term elections does offer the electorate an opportunity to “send a message” to Washington – whatever that may mean. But at least the means exist to do so should the populace have strong misgivings regarding the then current course of legislative or executive activity. Having the right and means of throwing the bums out is a very comforting notion. One is only stuck with them until their term is up. In some instances and by various means one is not even necessarily obligated to wait that long. The lack of permanence of office is indeed a powerful tool to assist in the keeping of a republic and in avoiding an oligarchy.

Contrary to my original thoughts on the subject, let’s keep it at two years. I feel safer that way.


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