Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 19, 2014
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U.S. House is unproductive and unpopular: Is a four-year term the answer?

That’s what one veteran lawmaker proposes

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For a member of the House of Representatives, the pre- and post-election process goes a bit like this: Raise money for a campaign, run the campaign, get elected and then on the first day on the new job — start doing it all over again.

It’s no secret that congressional elections have increasingly become hinged on the success of fundraising. But many see the exorbitant amount of time spent soliciting money as time taken away from the jobs members of Congress were elected to do. So it’s not surprising that Congress’ popularity ratings come in below colonoscopies and head lice.

But a senior representative has a novel idea that he thinks could fix the House: doubling a member’s term.

This is probably about the point where you’re scratching your head. Congress isn’t productive, so the answer is to give them more time on the job?

You’re right, it does seem counterintuitive. But Rep. John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut, might be on to something.

Larson introduced a joint resolution in April that seeks ratification of the Constitution to extend a term in the House of Representatives from two years to four, with staggered elections.

Larson’s idea would leave members in power longer, a good thing to Larson. It’s an idea he said he’s been toying around with for many of his 15 years in the House and that he thinks could get rid of two of the institution’s biggest problems: Congress’s inability to compromise on any new legislation and the growing influence of money in politics.

“It has only gotten exponentially worse since I’ve gotten here,” Larson told DecodeDC, “even if you are in a safe district you are spending an inordinate amount of time raising money rather than spending it with committees or with your colleagues.”

One of the biggest problems at the heart of Congress’s inactivity, Larson says, is big money’s power over it. An analysis of data from the 2012 elections found that a single U.S. House seat cost around $1.7 million to win. Senate seats went for 10 times that amount.

Broken down, that means the House winners raised around $2,300 a day — from their first day in office to the end of a two-year term — to get to the ballpark sum they needed to pull off a victory.

So Congress has become a band of telemarketers.

Members set aside daily hours for calling constituents and potential donors. On top of that, they are expected to attend fundraisers, speak at events and travel frequently to their districts to make appearances.

A PowerPoint presentation given to incoming Democratic freshmen only a week after the last elections and obtained by the Huffington Post shows that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suggested four hours of call time a day as part of a member’s “Model Daily Schedule.” It also suggested one to two hours a day for constituent visits, one hour for strategic outreach and a paltry two hours reserved for time spent in committee hearings or voting on the floor.

Let’s put this into context. It would be like if you were a full-time computer engineer and you only spent two hours a day doing the engineering work, with the rest spent reading Wired magazine, giving TED talks and soliciting trips to South by Southwest.

So what would changing House terms from two to four years do? Well for one, Larson thinks it will take money further out of the equation because members will only have to fixate on elections every four years. Also, it would give them more time to get settled, to get to know one another and to get to know the politics of Capitol Hill.

It’s more likely that if you’re friends with someone you’ll listen to him, even when his ideologies don’t match up with yours. That’s what Larson is hoping can happen with legislators. He hopes there will be more across the aisle collaboration, or at least understanding and respect.

“Would there be as much reluctance to bring up issues if a person wasn’t up for election? Would immigration come to the floor? Would unemployment come to the floor? Would the whole health care debate be different?” Larson explained.

The idea of a four-year House term has cropped up before. A 2013 Economist piece entitled “Throw the Bums Two More Years” argued in favor of the term change:

“Why contemplate empowering these jokers for double their constitutionally allotted time? In short, the biennial ritual of electing a new House is a significant cause of the body’s inefficacy. The two-year term achieves exactly the opposite of what the founders hoped it would. In a political scene shaped increasingly by the demands of campaign fund-raising, the 24-month cycle only encourages bad behavior.”

Larson doesn’t believe his resolution has much likelihood of passing. It has no co-sponsors and amending the Constitution would mean the resolution needs to pass the House, the Senate and win ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. But he says he’d be happy if it just sparked some conversation.

 “From just a pure logical standpoint it makes sense,” he said. “Knowledge is what happens when you get the ability to kick things around, when you go back and forth.”