Four-Year House Term

Of all the new proposals in President Johnson's State of the Union message, none was more unexpected than his recommendation for a Constitutional Amendment giving four-year terms to members of the House of Representatives. However, the fact that it was not expected does not mean that it has not been studied not that it is unsound.

There are several good reasons for supporting a four-year House term. First, the biennial election makes campaigning almost a full-time activity for increasingly overworked Congressmen. In the face of more and more complex duties, most Representatives must also attend to constituents' business, answer their mail, write endless newsletters and press releases, and record messages for local radio and television stations.

The lengthening of the Congressional term of office will provoke reverberations of the old Jeffersonian belief that frequent elections are the best guarantee against tyranny. But in an age of mass communications and sophisticated means of sampling public opinion, annual or biennial elections are no longer necessary to determine the public will. The gentleman legislators of Jefferson's day could campaign at leisure between brief sessions; today's Congressmen have to steal time from heavy schedules in the capital to campaign strenuously in their districts.

These strong arguments for a longer House term leave one question unanswered: when should Congressmen be elected? If the entire House were chosen at off-year elections (e.g. 1962, 1966), then every newly-elected President would be confronted with a hold-over House during his first two years-clearly an undesirable situation. Staggered elections-some in the off-year, some in Presidential years-would arbitrarily create two classes of Congressional districts with two different kinds of Congressional politics; many citizens would rightly feel discriminated against.

The only acceptable course, then, is to have the House elected at the same time as the President. This would undoubtedly change the nature of the House in the long run. Members would probably tend to become more closely identified with the program of their party's Presidential candidates and to become more dependent on their success. There would be a slow, gradual tendency for the gap between what James MacGregor Burns has called the Presidential and the Congress branches of the two parties to narrow.


Various theoretical arguments can be raised against this tendency, but practical considerations are more to the point. In an era when the pace of social as well as technological change seems to be accelerating at a geometrical rate, the Congress tends to grind exceeding slow. The hyperactive 89th Congress is atypical; on Capitol Hill it is normally easier to obstruct than to enact. To appreciate how Congress usually functions, we need only go back to the first session of the 88th Congress in 1963. Then the House was wallowing in inaction, ignoring the Administration's advice and paying heed to the since discredited economic myths opposing the tax cut and the racist opposition to the civil rights bill.

Such an episode illustrates Congressional tendencies to assert independence from the Executive at the expense of urgent social needs. A four-year term for House members, by binding them somewhat more closely to their party's presidential candidate and platform, will make Congressmen more responsive to the national problems of the remaining third of the twentieth century. And it will allow them to work more efficiently and thoroughly at the task of solving them.