Proposals to Change the House Term of Office to Four Years
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Proposals t o Change the
House T erm o f Office to Four Years
Sula P. Richardson
Analys t i n American N ational Government
Government and Finance Division
The C onstitution p rescribes a two-year term of office for M em bers of the U.S.
House of R epresentatives (Article I, Section 2). Some observers have suggested that
the t erm s hould b e l onger, p articularly in light of t h e g r o w t h i n t he number o f
co nstituents repres ented, demands on Members’ time, volume and complex ity of
legi slation, and costs of el ection cam paigns. A change in the l engt h of t he term would
require an amendment t o t he Constitution. Representative C harles Stenholm o f T ex as
has i ntroduced a p roposal that would p rovide for electing R epresentatives to one term
of t wo ye a r s a n d t wo t erm s of four years wi t h i n each t en-year census cycl e. T he
resolution — H.J .Res. 66 — has been referred t o t he House J udici ary C ommittee. This
report p rovides an overview o f efforts t o l en gt hen t he term of office for M embers of the
U.S. House o f R epresentatives to four years. It discusses t he perceived n eed to lengthen
the t erm, arguments for and against lengthening t he term, s el ect ed problem s t hat might
be sol v ed and creat ed i f t h e t erm were changed t o f o ur years, and s om e t yp es of four-
year proposals t hat h ave b een introduced. T he report will be updated as events warrant.
The current t w o-year House t erm w as t h e resul t o f a com p rom i s e reached at t h e
Constitutional C onvention i n 1787 by advocates of a one-year t e r m and advocates of a
t h ree-year or l onger t erm . D el egat es favori n g t he one-year t e r m ( e . g., El bri d ge Gerry,
Roger S herman, Oliver Ellsworth) argu ed that annual elections would h elp t o ensure t hat
Members would b e m ore responsive t o t heir constitu en ts’ views, concerns, and needs.
Fu rthermore, Members o f C ongress under t he Articles o f C onfeder a tion were elected
annually; and the t erm o f o ffice for m embers of the S tate Assembly in all but three s tates
was one year.1
1 At the time of t he drafting of t he Constitution, the members of the l ower branch of the South
Carolina l egislature were elected every two years, while Connecticut and Rhode Is land elected
their members every s ix months ( Federalist Papers No. 53).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Other d elegates (e.g., J ames M adison an d Alex ander Hamilton) advocated a t erm o f
at l east t hree years. They argu ed t h at a s hort er t erm w oul d not al l o w n ew Mem b ers
sufficient time to acquaint t hemselves with their duties o r t o g ai n s u fficient knowledge
about national i ssues and i nterests, which ar e i nherently complex . In addition, a t erm o f
one year would “be almost consumed in preparing for and t raveling t o and from t he seat
of national business.”2 Fu rthermore, elections held too frequently might promote
indifference among t h e electorate. Reflecting a compromise, the p roposed new
Constitution, which provided t hat House M em bers “s hall be chosen every s econd year,”
was referred t o t he st at es and w as rat i fi ed. Thus, any change i n t h e t wo-year t erm requi res
am endment of t he Constitution.
The first proposed constitutional amendmen t t o change t he length of the House t erm
to four years was i n t r o d u ced by Rep. Lewis S elye of New York o n February 8 , 1869.
Since t hen, more than 200 proposals h ave b een introduced to lengthen the House t erm t o
four years. Only one of them was voted on in either House. During the 5 9 th Congress,
the resolution — H.J .Res. 120 — was rejected in the House b y a vote o f 8 9 t o 8 6 o n J une
20, 1906. (Constitutional amendments require two-thirds, rather t han a simple majority
for p assage before being referred t o t he states for ratification.)
A number o f factors h ave contributed to a dvocat es’ p ercept i o n t hat a l onger House
term is needed. S ome contend t hat, gi ven t he growth in the number o f constituents each
Member repres ents, and the volume and complex ity of modern legi slation, Members need
a l onger term to addres s policy i ssues and carry out thei r l egislative duties. Reportedly,
the “House o f R epresentatives in the v ery First Congress in both of its sessions proposed
only 142 bills of which 118 becam e l aw.”3 During the 107th Congress, 9,130 bills and
joint resolutions were introduced, o f which 377 became public law. 4 Furthermore, with
the s hort, two-year term, t hey s uggest that Memb e r s are always running for reelection.
Some say a longer term could i ncrease M embers ’ opportunity to discharge t heir legi slative
duties without being overly concerned with campaigning. In addition, some say
protract ed daily sessions combined with conflicts between floor an d committee work,5
and i ncreas ed demands on Members’ time within the s hort t wo-year time frame, can be
so disruptive t o M em bers’ family life t hat s ome m ay retire from t he House before t hey or
thei r constituents want.
2 Gaillard Hunt and J ames Br own Scott, eds. Debates in the Federa l C o nvention of 1787,
Committee of t he W h o l e, in Remarks of M r. Madison, T uesday, J une 12, 1787 (Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1920), p. 91.
3 Extension of r emarks o f R e p. Herbert T enze r, of New York i n U.S. Congress, Senate,
Committee on t he J udiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Four-Y ear Term f or
Representatives, hearings on S.J .Res. 72, S.J .Res. 126, S.J .Res. 128, S.J .Res. 132, and H.J .Res.th nd
394, 89 Cong., 2 sess., J uly 13-14, 1966 (Washington: GPO, 1967), p . 26. (Rep. T enze r made
the r emarks in support of a resolu t i o n he had introduced that would have provi ded f or a t hree-
4 Precise comparison of f igures cannot be made, due to the differences in definitions of measures
and how they were recorded and categorized for early Congresses. For example, t he distinction
between publ i c b i lls and private bills or among bills, j oint resolutions, s imple r esolutions, and
concurrent resolutions is not always made in various sources.
5 For f urther discussion on scheduling, see CRS Report RL30825, House Sc h e dule: Recent
Practices and Proposed Options , by Richard S. Beth, summary.
A m aj or challenge lies i n devising a simple, comprehensive, and fai r system that
leaves the 10-year cens u s - t a k i n g and reapportionment cycle unchanged. Because 10 is
not evenly divisible b y four, four-year terms t end t o b e s omewhat p roblematic (though not
unworkable). Of course, t here is the option o f amending Article I, Section2,suchthatthe
census-taking and reapportionment cycle is chan ge d t o s ome frequency t hat i s evenly
divisible b y four (e.g., every 1 2 years). Altern atively, supporters have offered a variety o f
proposals aimed at addressing reapportionment and other i ssues.
Pro/Con Arguments. Modern debate on whether t he t w o-year term should b e
lengthened (usually to four years) incl udes t he following arguments:
Arguments in Favor.
! A l onger term would give M em bers more time to acquire ex perien ce an d
ex pert i s e o n i ssues.
! Elections held less frequently (e.g., every four years) w o u l d give
Members m ore time to attend to their l egislative responsibilities and
enable them to concentrat e on program s which reflect thei r constituents’
needs and interests.
! The high i ncumbency rat e s uggests general satisfaction with the j ob
incu mben ts are d o i n g ; t herefore, i t would s av e time an d energy t o
conduct campaigns less frequently.
! Elections held l e s s f requently could i ncrease vot er i n t erest and h ence
! A l onger t erm woul d resul t i n fewer el ections, which would p resumably
lead to a reduction i n cam paign costs.
Arguments in Opposition.
! Bi enni al el ect i ons keep t h e C ongress i n cl ose check and i n cl o ser t ouch
with the p eople, thus making the M embers more responsi v e t o
! Decreasing the frequency o f elections might diminish public influence on
! Members’ use o f advanced technology m akes today’s vol uminous and
complex l egislation m anageable in the present two-year time frame.
! Members can rely upon institutional resources, i ncluding the committee
system , i nteres t groups , and nonpartisan support agencies t o augment
t h ei r o wn person a l ex pert i s e o r t o i ncrease t hei r com p et ence on i ssues,
reducing t he need for a longer term.
! W h il e holding elections less frequently would reduce administrative
costs, it would not necessarily reduce t he total ex p ense of elections. A
candi dat e’s cam pai gn e x p enses are det erm i n ed by fact ors (e.g. , radi o ,
television advertisem ents and other media costs, t ravel, cam paign s taff
salaries, campaign events) other than frequency o f elections. Less
frequent el ections could even rai se the s takes b y e x t ending the time
frame for both fund-raising and campaigning.
Four -Year Ter m Pr oposal s
Most of the p roposals o ffered b y p roponents o f a four-year term may b e d ivided into
categories based upon the timing of e l ect ions. 6 Some proponents favor dividing the
House i nto classes, and electing t he classes alternately, so that (depending upon the
number of classes) some portion of t he House would b e u p for election every two years
(i.e., staggered elections). Some advocat e electing all the M em bers at the s am e time —
in pr e s i d e n tial election years (i.e., concurrent elections). Others support electing all
Members at t he same time but to one term of two years and two t erms of four years within
each t en-year census cycl e (t wo-year, four-year, four-year com b i n at i on).
Staggered E lections. Proponents o f s taggered elections have suggested dividi ng
the House i nto t wo classes 7 el ect ed al t ernat el y t o four year t erm s. They bel i eve st aggered
elections would m a i n t ain t he fundamental c oncept o f a House k ept close to the p eople,
si nce h al f o f t he House M em bers woul d b e el ect ed every t wo years. A t wo-year el ect i o n
interval would be ret ai ned while simultaneously providing the advantages of a four-year
term. In addition, staggered elections would hel p t o guard agai nst upsetting t he separation
of powers doctrine and checks and balances tradition b ecause House elections w ould
occur i n p residential election years and in non-presidential election years.
Opponents o f s taggering House elections argu e t hat i t would u p s et a fundamental
difference i n t he natures o f t h e H o use and Senate, t he former being a non-continuing
body, which is reconstituted at t he begi nning of each Congress (i.e., every t wo years), t he
latter b eing a body that continues from one Congress to another. It would also d isrupt the
basi c concept o f a House k ept cl o se t o t h e p eopl e b ecause t h e ent i re House woul d not be
up for election each Congress. Fu rther, every eligible voter in a s tate would not have the
opportunity to vote for a R epresentative every two years b ecause only h alf o f t he
congressi onal d i s t ri ct s i n each st at e woul d b e u p for el ect i o n every t wo years. Thi s woul d
be even m o re probl em at i c for s t at es w i t h a s i n gl e R epresent at i v e (one Mem b er el ect ed at
large) and s tates with an odd number of congressional districts.
In a ddition, some have argu ed that, within the contex t o f reapportionment and
resulting changes in the number of seats states may have, a House multiple-class and
al t ernat i n g t erm s ys t em could be burdensom e and com p l i cat ed. For ex am pl e, an obj ect i v e
woul d b e t o d evelop an unbiased system for categoriz ing t he various congressional
districts, depending upon the number of classes and the d ecennial reapportionment; the
frequency o f elections would t hus vary not only from s tate to stat e but al so within stat es
(but arguably no more so than in the current Senate cl as s s ys tem).
Elections Concurrent with the Presidential E lection. P roponents o f electing
al l House M em bers in pres idential e l ection years argue that it would m ax imize t he
likelihood of effective control o f C ongress and t he Presidency by the s ame political party,
thereby i ncreas ing ex ecutive-legi slative harmony and giving m ore assurance t hat t he
P resi d ent ’s p rogram s woul d b e consi d ered, i f not enact ed. Furt h erm o re, i t woul d not
6 See Tabl e 1 . Also, note t hat t he proposals described in this report and variations of them, while
typical, are not the only t ypes of four-year proposals t hat have been introduced.
7 T he maj ority of the proposals f or staggered el ections provide f or divi ding the House i nto t wo
classes, but there have also been proposals f or three-class s ys tems .
upset the d elicate b alance wh erein t otal membership of one of the houses is elected at one
time. M oreover, it would not creat e t he p r o b l em s i n s taggering seat s evenly within
individual s tates t hat s taggered elections could pose.
Opponents contend t hat electing all Members i n t h e s a me year of presidential
elections would upset the checks and balan ces in our three l evels o f government. It could
make the l egislative b ranch t oo dependent upon the ex ecutive b ranch, since all Members
woul d b e el ect ed i n presi d ent i al years. Furt her, i t m i ght have a n egat i v e effect on t h e t wo-
part y s ys t em , because i t woul d d i s cont i nue m i d t erm el ect i ons, w h i ch provi de an
opportunity for t he party t hat l ost t he previous presidential election t o gain s eats i n both
houses. Also, in this contex t, the midterm congressional elections are o ften viewed as a
referendum on both t he incumbent P resident and h is party.
Two-Years, Four-Years, Four-Years Combination.8 Some other proponents
of a four-year House t erm would rat her elect the entire House at t he same time but to one
t erm of t w o years and t w o t erm s of four years w i t h i n each t en-year census cycl e (t wo-year,
four- ye a r , f o u r -year com b i n at i on). For ex am pl e, i f such l egi sl at i o n were p assed b y t he
C ongress and app r o v e d b y t h e st at es wi t h i n t h e n ex t s even years, t h e t erm ex t ensi on
would b egin with the election o f 2010. The entire House would b e u p for election t hree
times during t he ten-year cycle b eginning w ith the 2010 election. House M embers elected
in 2010 would h ave a t erm o f t wo years (2011 and 2012, serving from J anuary 3, 2011
to J anuary 3, 2013). House M embers elected in 2012 would h ave a t erm o f four years
(2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, serving from J anuary 3, 2013 to J anuary 3, 2017); and House
Members elect ed i n 2016 would have a t erm of four years (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020,
serving from J anuary 3, 2017 to J anuary 3, 2021). The cycle would b egin again with the
House elections of the year 2020. Representative C harles Stenholm o f T ex as introduced
a p roposal of this type on J u ly 24, 2003. The m easure — H.J . Res. 66 — was referred t o
the House C ommittee on t he J udici ary.
Proponents o f p roviding for a term of two years and two t erms of four years i n a ten-
year cycle contend t hat i t would accommodate the census and changes i n reapportionment
of t h e H ouse t hat can occur aft er t h e d ecenni al census. It would also m aintain t he basic
tenet t hat t he entire House m embership i s u p for el ection simultaneously. In addition, it
combines advantages of some of th e o ther types o f four-year term proposals. Fo r
ex ample, within a d ecade, if elections for t he tw o - ye a r t e r m were held in a non-
presidential year (e.g., 2010), elections for both four-year terms w o u l d b e h eld i n
presidential election years (e.g. , 2012 and 2016). In t he succeeding d ecade, the reverse
woul d o ccur. That i s , t he el ect i o n for t h e t wo-year t erm woul d b e h el d i n a presi d ent i al
year (i.e., 2020) and elections for both four-year terms would b e h eld i n non-presidential
years (i.e., 2022 and 2026 ) . As a result, a rot ation o f a sort (relative t o p residential
el ect i o n years) woul d o ccur w i t h i n and across d ecades (see Table 1).
Opponents of the 2-4-4 plan argue that within each t en-year cycl e, t h ere w ou l d b e
only one interval of two years when voters woul d h ave t he opportunity to effectively
8 Discussion is based upon Members being elected to the t wo-year term in year ending in 0 ( e.g.,
2010); f our year te r m in year ending in 2 ( e.g., 2012) and a four-year term in year ending in 6
(2016) within each ten year cycle. T he 2-4- 4 combination would begin again with the decennial
regi ster their assessment o f t he job t heir Representative i s doing, as compared t o five s uch
oppor t u n ities within the same ten-year time frame under t he current system. The 2-4-4
pl an coul d al s o upset t h e d el i cat e s ys t em o f checks and bal ances bet w een t h e ex ecut i v e
and l egislative b ranches, depending up o n w h e t h er t he elections for four-year terms
occurred i n p residential o r non-presidential years. In addition, candidates might be less
inclined to seek el ection t o t he shorter t wo-year terms.
Resignation from the Hous e to Run for the Senate. In an effort t o i n crease
Senate support for a l onger House t erm, some of the p roposals for a l onger House t erm
also provide that no Member of the House m ay run for the S enate unless h e o r s he resign s
from t he House b efore s eeking nomination or election t o t h e S enat e.
Table 1. Four-Year House T erm Proposals b y T ype and Election Year
Staggered elections b
Presidenti al (tw o classes elected alternately) 2-4-4 Combination
Election election Co ncurrenta (2 yr-4 yr-4yr
year year elections within 10-yr. cycle)Cl a s s A (½) Cl a ss B (½)
2012 UU U U
2016 UU U U
2020 UU U U
2024 UU U
2028 UU U
2032 UU U U
2036 UU U U
2040 UU U U
2044 UU U
2048 UU U
a Fo r the p ur p o ses o f this r e p o r t, co nc ur r e nt electio ns me a n s e lecting a ll Ho use M emb e r s in p r esid ential
b Fo r the p ur p o ses o f this r e p o r t, stagge r e d e lectio ns means d ivid ing the Ho use a s e q ually as p o ssib le into
two c lasse s a nd electing tho se classe s a lternately, such that one-ha lf of the House Memb ers would be
elected every two years.