TAUBE: A case for House term limits

Trimming lengthy tenure would reduce policy gridlock

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Americans are obviously accustomed to two-year terms for their representatives. Yet some observers have pointed out these House terms are too quick, allow for very small amounts of meaningful legislation to get passed, and lead to perpetual election cycles.

Is there anything that could be done to fix this?

Wall Street Journal columnist William Galston proposed on Feb. 25 that the “solution is straightforward — four-year House terms synchronized with the presidential election cycle.” Although acknowledging this isn’t a revolutionary concept — two former presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, both mentioned it — his belief is “four-year House terms would also increase the chances of effective governance.”

Here’s what could potentially happen with longer House terms. “If the winning presidential candidate and House majority are of the same party,” wrote Mr. Galston, “the president would have a better chance of enacting promised legislation, giving the people a chance to judge its consequences. If the electorate instead divides the partisan control of the Oval Office and the House, both the president and the leaders of the House majority would be on notice that neither could outlast the other, forcing them to choose between compromise and a full term of gridlock.”

I completely respect Mr. Galston’s desire to end the nuisance of political gridlock. Yet there were reasons why the Founders favored two-year House terms then — and why many Americans still favor them now.

First, it ensures that representatives don’t get completely comfortable in their roles. Two years isn’t a lifetime, and the voters can be a fickle lot. You have very little time to prove yourself, and every day in office counts.

Second, it helps reduce a representative’s sense of entitlement. Knowing your term will come up quickly, and that constant fundraising is essential to your political survival, it’s hard to get too big for your britches. Those who do, especially newcomers, can easily fail.

Third, the House must produce more quality work in shorter time periods before facing the voters’ wrath once more. Some constituents will, therefore, take a closer look at the legislation a representative supports, rejects or proposes in two years.

Unless the political winds are blowing in a certain direction, or the political pendulum is swinging in a certain fashion, those could be make-or-break decisions at the voting booth.

Fourth, shorter House terms means the Senate has a stronger and more influential role in U.S. politics. Senators are higher-ranking officials, with junior and senior members both serving six-year terms.

Hence, they can outlast many representatives as well as some presidents. That’s a real position of power, and creates the sort of check and balance that the Founders favored.

The House of Representatives is, therefore, still a successful political formula for achieving immediate results in a shorter time span. Many of its members don’t feel a strong sense of entitlement, or that they have a job for life.

That being said, I certainly don’t think the two congressional houses are perfect — far from it.

If the United States ever decides to reform the election process of its bicameral legislature, here’s my suggestion: I would set term limits for representatives and senators, much like we have in the Oval Office, and coordinate all of these elected positions on the timetable to ensure that more fresh faces arrive in Washington at a faster rate.

Think about it. Four-year terms for representatives, senators and presidents. The same start time and end time for the executive and legislative branches of government. A maximum of two terms for any elected official.

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