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Where Frequent Elections End, Tyranny Begins

Students of the Constitution often ask for an explanation of the Constitutional Convention’s rationale for distinguishing the length of terms for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Why, they wonder, do Representatives serve two-year terms, while Senators serve six-year terms?

The starting point for analysis of Article I, Section 2 and 3 of the Constitution, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 52, is to understand that the entire debate in the Philadelphia Convention and, for that matter, throughout the country, occurred within the frame of a “proverbial” observation: “Where frequent elections end, tyranny begins.” Among the founders of our nation, there was no debate that “frequent elections” were critical to holding our congressional representatives accountable to the people, lest they forget their “dependence” on the people, whom they serve.

There was, however, no universal agreement on what “frequent elections” meant. Most state constitutions provided for annual elections of state officials, which provided a historical platform for the framers’ debates on the proper length of a term in the House and the Senate. For some, annual elections were more democratic and required representatives to heed the views of constituents. Parsing the logic of that viewpoint, Madison wondered whether “daily, weekly or monthly” elections might better serve those criteria?

The framers’ debates on the question of the duration of a term went off in many directions. For House members, the preferences ranged from one to two to three years. For Senators, proposals included four, six and seven year terms, service during good behavior and even life tenure. There was no magical number, and advocates of various positions admitted as much. “Brutus,” an anti-Federalist, for example, acknowledged in a paper published on April 10, 1788, that, “It is difficult to fix the precise period for which the senate should be chosen.” He nevertheless believed a six-year term was too long.

In the end, the framers’ deliberations, as Madison observed, were guided by the question of whether too-frequent elections would prevent members of Congress from acquiring sufficient knowledge of the “common interests” of the nation, and the necessary experience required of those who would write laws and determine policies that would govern an expansive nation, what Madison characterized in Federalist No. 53 as, “the great theater of the United States.” Annual elections, Madison explained, might actually interfere with congressional representatives’ on-the-job training and education. The length of terms for each chamber, moreover, should reflect the duties and powers of its members, as well as constituent’s expectations of their representatives.

The decision to establish a two-year term for members of the House reflected the Convention’s belief that Representatives would be close to the people and, in the spirit of democracy-in-action, likely to give voice to constituent’s immediate needs and demands, and serve as a vent for their emotions, including frustrations and anger. Their perspective would focus more on short-term, rather than long-term interests of the nation. A two-year term, it could be said, would keep members of the House on a short leash and ensure frequent consultation with the citizenry. Two years, Madison asserted, would be sufficient to acquire knowledge of “the principal objects of federal legislation.”

These considerations shaped the framers’ decision to balance the more intimate and direct nature of representation in the House with a more detached conception of representation in the Senate, which would be influenced by a six-year year term in office. While House members would emphasize short-term interests, Senators would, it was expected, focus on the long terms interests of the United States. Like their counterparts in the House, Senators would be expected to acquire knowledge necessary to write laws and policies to govern our nation, but these members of the Upper Chamber would exercise additional powers that reflected what Madison, in Federalist No. 62, called “senatorial trust.”

The constitutional allocation of powers to the Senate, not exercised by the House, such as shared authority with the president over treaties and appointments, reflects the framers’ view that the Senate should be focused, generally, on the long-term commitments of the nation. This is not true of every power, of course, since the House shares with the Senate the war power—the authority to take the nation to war—which certainly can entail the most solemn implications for the future of the United States. However, a six-year term for the Senate was designed to encourage stability, continuity and long-range planning in policy matters, including foreign policy and treaty making, and the administration of government, as glimpsed in the appointment of federal judges and ambassadors, among other officials.

A revolving door of Senators coming-and-going on, say, an annual, biennial or triennial basis, likely would undermine the framers’ hopes for a mature institution, weighing the pros and cons of policies, treaties and appointments from the perspective of long-term national interests.

This historical explanation is not to say that the framers hopes have been fulfilled.

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