Stenholm Pushes 4-Year House Terms

Posted July 22, 2003 at 6:04pm

Sick and tired of the “constant campaign” dictated by two-year terms, Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) wants to amend the Constitution to create four-year terms for House Members.

“It’s July 2003, and yet most of us are already thinking ahead to Election Day of November 2004,” Stenholm explained this week in a “Dear Colleague” letter. “From the moment we are elected to office, we must turn our attention to the next campaign, spending hours raising money and developing campaign strategies.”

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) is joining Stenholm — who decided earlier this year that the constitutional amendment would be one of his pet projects in the 108th Congress — and the bipartisan duo have already drafted their joint resolution to change the term of office.

The amendment — which Stenholm plans to introduce this week — would leave the 10-year census and reapportionment cycle unchanged, and it provides for a rotating election cycle with a two-year term that coincides with the decennial census.

Stenholm and Bartlett explained that Members would begin serving a four-year term in January 2013 that would continue through January 2017, with another four-year term starting then and continuing through 2021.

But for the Congress that would begin in 2021 Members would serve only a two-year term, and the next four-year term wouldn’t begin until 2023, coinciding with the completion of redistricting following the 2020 Census.

The proposal would also require that House Members must resign from office 30 days before filing to run for the Senate.

“Our amendment will focus Members’ attention on their official legislative duties by removing the pressures of the constant campaign,” Stenholm and Bartlett explained. “Members’ time would be better spent if they believed they could spend less time campaigning and more energy on the issues we were elected to address.”

Stenholm’s idea — while unlikely to ever pass the high bar set for passing constitutional amendments — nonetheless has its fans.

“I like the idea,” remarked James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

Thurber — who wrote a long piece for former Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) in 1973, when Humphrey was advocating extending the length of House terms to four years — believes it would reduce the cost of “constant campaigning.”

“The physical cost, as well as the psychological cost, as well as the monetary cost of campaigning all the time … it’s very disruptive,” Thurber remarked.

Four-year terms might also have an impact on the relationship between the White House and Congress.

Under the current system, Capitol Hill lawmakers and presidents are elected on different cycles, thereby minimizing their interdependence on each other.

If four-year Congressional terms ran concurrently with the presidential term, Thurber said “mandates” and presidential “coattails” would conceivably have “more of an impact on the House of Representatives,” making Congress more closely resemble a parliamentary system.

There are equally compelling arguments against changing the terms of House Members.

As the authors of the Federalist Papers argued, two years seemed a logical and beneficial length of service for Representatives. Namely, the two-year period is short enough to encourage Members’ accountability to their electorate, but long enough for lawmakers to acquire some institutional experience and knowledge.

Other skeptics might argue that it’s inherently self-serving for lawmakers to pursue a change in the Constitution that will secure their jobs for twice as long as they are now.

Whatever one’s take on the issue, one thing is clear — that passing a constitutional amendment of any kind is far from easy, but Stenholm said it’s a fight he’s willing to wage.

“Amending the Constitution is a very serious matter and it takes time,” he said, noting that it took 12 years to pass a balanced-budget amendment on the House floor. “What we’ve done now is researched it, put it forth in a good amendment for consideration.”

Stenholm said he and Bartlett are seeking “as many original co-sponsors” as they can on their legislation, and that he planned to tout the amendment Tuesday in a meeting with other Democratic Blue Dogs.

“I’ve been here 25 years now and I’ve watched the gradual evolution of the election process deteriorating into something that’s grown increasingly frustrating to the people I represent back home,” Stenholm said. “We had an election last year and within a few weeks, the election for next year had started.

Stenholm said longer terms of service for public servants has gained a foothold in the Lone Star State — “We’ve gone that way with county judges in Texas,” he said — and he hopes the idea will catch on in Washington.