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The Weak Case Against the Midterms

David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan make an unpersuasive case for eliminating midterm elections for Congress:

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 [bold mine-DL]. 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.

The authors’ argument doesn’t hold up very well. How could it possibly increase Americans’ confidence in their government to make that government even less accountable to them than it already is? Why is it less important now for members of Congress to be held accountable by voters than it was centuries ago when the federal government was far less powerful and intrusive than it is today? There are flaws with a two-year House term, but these have to do with the nature of campaign financing that requires House members to be in almost constant fundraising mode from the time they win their first election. Eliminating the midterms would “solve” that problem by way of even further entrenching incumbents and making it harder to impose an electoral check on whichever party happens to be in power. That may suit the interests of politicians that are already in office, but it’s not in the public interest. Almost all members of Congress are certain to win re-election this year. The problem with our system is not that the midterms create too much disruption, but that they usually don’t have much of an impact at all. Only in extraordinary “wave” elections that knock off dozens of incumbents at a time do the midterms fully serve their function, and that doesn’t happen all that often.

Schanzer and Sullivan present the elimination of midterm elections as a solution to Congressional gridlock, but changing the election timetable doesn’t address any of the structural reasons for the phenomenon. The two parties don’t fail to reach agreements on major issues for lacking of “breathing space,” but because their respective coalitions represent two increasingly different and competing blocs of interests that disagree about the government’s priorities and what policies should be adopted. You could elect House members to five-year terms and Senators to terms of ten years, and it wouldn’t change the political incentives that drive the minority party towards obstructionism or the majority party to overreach. Further, it is normally very difficult to reach a broad consensus on any issue in such a large and diverse country, but the concentration of power in Washington tempts both parties to try to push through ambitious agendas on the entire country despite the fact that each party represents less than half of the whole. Making members of Congress less accountable to voters won’t change that, but it will make it more difficult for the supporters of the minority party at the time to object to whatever policies are being imposed on them. As Peter Suderman observed, the case against the midterms is actually a fairly compelling case in favor of them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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