Biennial Elections

Historical Highlight

“The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”
— U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2, clause 1

The U.S. House of Representatives has been a popularly-elected body with its membership reconstituted every two years throughout its history. The biennial term was a compromise at the Federal Constitutional Convention, but there have been efforts as late as the 1960s to change its length. The two-year term has dictated the rhythm of legislative business in the House.

Origins

English parliamentary elections and meetings of the House of Commons varied between three- and seven-year terms, but elections and meetings were set by the members themselves and often tied to the demands of the king. The so-called “Long Parliament,” for example, sat for eight years prior to the English civil war and continued in various states of legality for another 12. The republican military leader Oliver Cromwell dismissed this parliament in 1653 by famously declaring that it had “grown intolerably odious to the whole nation.” With this much in mind, delegates at the Convention were concerned that Members of the House would grow detached from their constituencies if they did not face regular elections.

Constitutional Framing

James Madison was an integral part of the constitutional framing of the House./tiles/non-collection/i/i_origins_biennal_elections_madison_hc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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James Madison was an integral part of the constitutional framing of the House.

Convention delegates contested the terms of service for Members of the House, and the founders employed their experiences with the House of Commons and the state legislatures when considering the design of the new federal government. Two innovations designed to further democratic accountability separated the American and British experiences. The first was fixed terms of office. Unlike in parliamentary systems, American political parties could not call advantageous elections. Elections would be held according to a given length of time rather than when political leaders thought they would be most likely to win. The second innovation was regular elections. In most colonial and state legislatures, members of the lower chambers faced annual elections, while some were every six months. Only South Carolina had biennial elections for the legislature. Connecticut Delegate Roger Sherman spoke of the necessity of regular elections during the Convention: “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of Govt. they would acquire the habits of the place which might differ from those of their Constituents.”

One and three-year terms of service were initially proposed at the Convention. Proponents of the one-year term used their state legislatures as an example, while proponents of the three-year term followed the British example at the time. Those who wanted longer terms argued that national governments were more complex than state governments, and that one year was an insufficient amount of time for representatives to become acquainted with the policies and practice of federal government. They also said travel constraints alone justified longer terms, since at the time it could take months for Members of Congress to reach the capital from more remote areas. Supporters of one-year terms, however, said longer terms bordered on tyranny. The Convention settled on two-year terms for Members of the House as a true compromise between the one- and three-year factions.

"An Intimate Sympathy"

Advocates for one-year terms continued to dissent from the compromise during the state conventions on constitutional ratification. One Anti-Federalist wrote that the House would be the “Assistant Aristocratical Branch” to the Senate, where the Members would be “infinitely more inclined to co-operate and compromise with each other, than to be the careful guardians of the rights of their constituents.” But Rufus King, at the Massachusetts state convention, explained the balance the federal delegates attempted to strike. “It seems proper that the representative should be in office time enough to acquire that information which is necessary to form a right judgment; but that the time should not be so long as to remove from his mind the powerful check upon his conduct, that arises from the frequency of elections, whereby the people are enabled to remove an unfaithful representative, or to continue a faithful one,” he said.

In Federalist, no.52, James Madison of Virginia writes: “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general, should have a common interest with the people; so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration, should have an immediate dependence on, & an intimate sympathy with the people.” Frequent elections, therefore, were key to the “intimate sympathy” Members of the House were supposed to have with their constituents. Frequent elections in the House also helped to justify the longer terms of Senators, particularly for Federalists who were concerned about popular opinion swaying public policy and faced attacks for creating an “aristocratic” chamber in Congress to represent state interests.

Current Practice

Two-year terms impact how Congress conducts its business. The House recreates itself after every election--pending bills die, committee work is shelved, and new Members take their seats. Even if few freshman legislators win election and the party in control of the House remains the same, each session becomes its own, individual entity. Elected officers, like the Clerk, are charged with maintaining what little consistency there is between Congresses. As a result, time becomes an important, though scarce, resource. That resource is depleted further given the crush of mandatory business (like appropriation bills), the demands of modern campaigns, and the need for Members to travel back home. The rhythm of legislative business can be frenetic and includes some late nights, especially as the House debates complex or controversial issues.

For Further Reading

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. (New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.).

Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. 4 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1937).

Jones, Charles O. Every Second Year: Congressional Behavior and the Two-Year Term. (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1967).

Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay. The Federalist Papers. (New York: Penguin Books, 1987).

Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).