Days before the November election I was listening to a radio talk show and the topic of discussion was a prominent Democrat who suggested that congressional terms should be made longer. Specifically, he suggested having U.S. Senators serve for eight years rather than six and electing members of the U.S. House of Representatives to four year terms instead of two.
The reasoning behind suggesting such a change was to limit the number of opportunities voters have to impact the system to ensure more stability in the federal government. Prompting the discussion was voter propensity to deal President Barack Obama mid-term electoral set-backs compromising his ability to enact his policy agenda.
Interestingly, when someone dislikes the verdict of the voters or an elected official misbehaves the search goes on for a systemic weakness to blame. Inevitably, the “solution” to such non-existent problems is to remove from those rascally voters the ability to express their will through the electoral process.
Such is the case in Pennsylvania where recent episodes of elected officials behaving badly have prompted calls for systemic change that, in the end would erode the power of voters and diminish the ability of “We the People” to impact the composition of our own government. Specifically, structural “reforms” that would enhance the power of elites to the detriment of grassroots voters include reducing the size of the state legislature and enacting the merit selection of judges.
The recent forced retirement of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey for excessive use of the send button on his computer has re-energized the merit selection movement. Presumably, a merit selection committee would have asked McCaffrey if he liked to forward along pornographic e-mails, he would have admitted such, and thus been eliminated from consideration. Likewise the last justice to be impeached, Rolf Larson, would have admitted his addictions to the merit selection committee and informed them of his plan to use staff to acquire prescription drugs illegally.
It is folly to believe a merit selection committee would be error free in its choices. The only sure outcome of merit selection is that the selectors and those who select the selectors would gain incredible influence over one-third of state government with no voter oversight or recourse. True, voters are often ill informed when it comes to judicial candidates, but the same can be said for many other offices as well.
Reducing the size of the General Assembly is another “reform” that would diminish the impact of voters while giving leaders greater control. A smaller legislature would mean larger districts. Candidates must spend more to be elected in larger districts, thus the role of campaign cash would grow while the ability of less well financed candidates to compete through grassroots campaigning would be lessened. Do we really want to make money in politics more important?
At the national level, lengthening the terms of congressmen and senators would severely curtail the ability of voters to express their will. The framers of the U.S Constitution intended for the House to be volatile, representing the momentary views of the people. Senators were granted six-years terms to be the “cooling saucer” of those who could take a longer term view. It was and is a good compromise that has served our nation well.
The old saying that our system of government is the worst there is – except for all the others remains true. Constitutions are written and systems are established so the framework of government is timeless and not whipsawed by the winds of current events. Any system is only as good as the men and women who serve within it. The key to better government lies not in changing the system, but in being more vigilant on whom we select to represent us.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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