The Corner

Let’s Not Cancel the Midterms

In the New York Times, David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan argue that the United States should abolish mid-term elections in favor of an all-inclusive quadrennial plebiscite:

There was a time when midterm elections made sense — at our nation’s founding, the Constitution represented a new form of republican government, and it was important for at least one body of Congress to be closely accountable to the people. But especially at a time when Americans’ confidence in the ability of their government to address pressing concerns is at a record low, two-year House terms no longer make any sense. We should get rid of federal midterm elections entirely.

There are few offices, at any level of government, with two-year terms. Here in Durham, we elect members of the school board and the county sheriff to terms that are double that length. Moreover, Twitter, ubiquitous video cameras, 24-hour cable news and a host of other technologies provide a level of hyper-accountability the framers could not possibly have imagined. In the modern age, we do not need an election every two years to communicate voters’ desires to their elected officials.

It is certainly fair to say that the country has changed since 1789, and it is true also that “Twitter, ubiquitous video cameras, 24-hour cable news and a host of other technologies provide a level of hyper-accountability” that was not on offer in the eighteenth century. In 1776, it took months for King George III to learn that the American colonies had rebelled; today, by contrast, he would not only have known immediately of the separation but he would have been able to see a high definition photograph of what Thomas Jefferson was eating for lunch, too. Nevertheless, one has to wonder what the value of these tools would be to a disgruntled people if they were unable to act on them at the ballot box. Essentially, Schanzer and Sullivan are taking a classically progressive view of what constitutes good government here, proposing flatly that we should introduce more time between elections so that the people cannot get in the way of their representatives’ grand plans. By contending that short-term sentiment should not be able to forestall long-term planning, the pair is offering a less grotesque version of Tom Friedman’s China-for-a-day fantasy. “Imagine what we could do,” this line of thought holds, “if the rubes weren’t there to stop us.”

That their preferred reforms would weaken America’s rigid separation of powers is, in consequence, presented not as a bug but as a feature. “The two-year cycle,” the duo write, “isn’t just unnecessary; it’s harmful to American politics.” Why? Well, because:

The main impact of the midterm election in the modern era has been to weaken the president, the only government official (other than the powerless vice president) elected by the entire nation. Since the end of World War II, the president’s party has on average lost 25 seats in the House and about 4 in the Senate as a result of the midterms. This is a bipartisan phenomenon — Democratic presidents have lost an average of 31 House seats and between 4 to 5 Senate seats in midterms; Republican presidents have lost 20 and 3 seats, respectively.

Later, they put this even more bluntly:

There’s an obvious, simple fix, though. The government should, through a constitutional amendment, extend the term of House members to four years and adjust the term of senators to either four or eight years, so that all elected federal officials would be chosen during presidential election years. Doing so would relieve some (though, of course, not all) of the systemic gridlock afflicting the federal government and provide members of Congress with the ability to focus more time and energy on governance instead of electioneering.

This adjustment would also give Congress the breathing space to consider longer-term challenges facing the nation — such as entitlement spending, immigration and climate change — that are either too complex or politically toxic to tackle within a two-year election cycle.

Clearly, Schanzer and Sullivan are not arguing for untrammeled government power. But they are attempting to push the state a little bit farther away from the control of the people — farther enough away, perhaps, that its custodians can avoid being judged until their changes have come to fruition. In Britain, which country’s parliamentary system can at times resemble an “elective dictatorship,” the unlovely combination of five-year terms and a lack of separation of powers make opposition to sweeping changes almost impossible, and reversal almost unfathomable. In consequence, the state grows inexorably — which, I imagine, is exactly what Schanzer and Sullivan wants.

In part, this is the product of other, structural, differences: Britain does not have a robust bicameral system in quite the way that the United States does, and nor does it have a discrete, elected executive who can veto any legislation that he dislikes. But it is also in part because British politicians are less worried about losing their seats than are their American counterparts. In Britain, there is a built-in incentive for MPs to toe the party line. In the United States, there is more often than not an incentive to portray oneself as an independent actor who puts one’s constituents first. As a result, American voters are regularly presented with a chance to ask their representatives if they are with them or they are against them, and those representatives are more often asked to block whatever new idea is coming over the horizon. This, to my eyes, is a beautiful thing.

Alas, one suspects that Schanzer and Sullivan disagree. Rather, the two seem to be yearning for a system that is more akin to a bog standard Westminster-style parliament than to the unique American model — a system, that is, in which the president is not regarded as just one part of the machine but as the key part of the machine. The ”impact of the midterm election in the modern era,” they contend, “has been to weaken the president, the only government official (other than the powerless vice president) elected by the entire nation.”

This approach — which celebrates strong, unified, and daring national government — comes straight from the playbook of a centralizer such as Woodrow Wilson. As Hillsdale’s Ronald J. Pestritto has put it, Wilson’s worldview

required that the President be understood as the national leader. The modern Presidency is an essential tool for the Progressive transformation of government. According to the Founders’ understanding of the executive branch, the President’s duties centered on national defense and the veto power, but little else. Wilson argued that the President, as the embodiment of national popular opinion, would be a singular force for the common good, able to lead the nation, including the two other branches of government, through the force of his own will. As the future President Wilson wrote, “His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.” 

Reason’s Peter Suderman sees the connection, too:

Basically, their complaint is that the midterms reinforce the notion that the president’s agenda is not the only one that matters, allow the public a chance to express their opinion about that agenda by voting at the midpoint of a presidential term, and that Congress has significant power to shape, slow, or even block that agenda through the legislative process (and might even respond with an agenda or agendas of its own).

“This strikes me,” Suderman concludes, ”as a better case for the midterms than one against it.”

Suderman is correct. The practical consequence of Schanzer and Sullivan’s coveted alterations would be to remove a crucial safety valve from the American constitutional order, thereby depriving the people of the chance to correct their government’s course before it is too late. Had Schanzer and Sullivan’s reforms been implemented in time for 2008, for example, Americans in 2010 would have been afforded no opportunity to express their considerable displeasure with Barack Obama and the Democratic party for having rammed the Affordable Care Act past them at all costs. In consequence, the Democratic party would have continued to enjoy free reign for another couple of years — long after it had been adequately demonstrated a) that its priorities and those of the voters were significantly out of step, and b) that it did not greatly care. For those among us who wonder to what extent ambitious politicians will be prepared to ignore the will of the people, one can only hope that the passage of Obamacare was instructive

This is not a partisan question. In both 1994 and 2006, voters elected to fire their representatives and to usher in new legislative leadership. In other years, the people have given the existing guard the thumbs up. Naturally, your view of these appraisals will vary with your politics. Either way, you should recognize them for what they were: a chance for the ruled to censure their rulers. That chance must be jealously guarded — against Caesar, and his enablers, too.

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