The ability of the American political system to deliver major policies on urgent issues is hampered by features of our institutions that we take for granted and rarely think about. Take the Constitution’s requirement that House members serve for only two-year terms.
Just a few months into a new administration, as the country grapples with issues of economic recovery and renewal, Congress’s actions are being shaped not by the merits of policy alone but also by the looming midterm elections. It’s not just the fall 2022 election; many incumbents are also calculating how best to position themselves to fend off potential primary challenges.
In nearly all other democracies, this is not normal.
The two-year House term has profound consequences for how effectively American government can perform — and too many of them are negative. A longer, four-year term would facilitate Congress’s ability to once again effectively address major issues that Americans care most about.
For several decades, party leaders in Congress have come largely to view the first year of a new administration as the narrow window in which to pass big initiatives. In a midterm election year, leaders resist making members in competitive districts take tough votes. In addition, much of “policymaking” discussion in Congress — particularly when control of the House is closely divided — is about parties’ jockeying to capture the House in the next midterms.
The president’s party nearly always loses House seats in the midterm elections. Since 1934, this has happened in all but two midterms. Yet it cannot be the case that all administrations have governed so poorly they deserve immediate electoral punishment.
So why does it happen so regularly? Presidential candidates can make vague appeals that allow voters to see whatever they prefer to see. But governing requires concrete choices, and those decisions inevitably alienate some voters. In addition, 21 months (Jan. 20 to early November of the next year) is too little time for voters to be able to judge the effects of new programs.
One of the most difficult aspects of designing democratic institutions is how to give governments incentives to act for the long term rather than the short term. The two-year term for House members does exactly the opposite.