Want braver politicians? Hold fewer elections
Election years aren’t a time for political bravery. Instead, election years are a time to pander to the voters — perhaps, this time around, with a presidentially-approved tax cut. But the president isn’t the only elected official riding the pander wagon: Since most members of Congress desperately want to get reelected, they’re taking actions today –committee votes, floor votes, and much else – to boost their chances in November. And all too often, those election-year actions are bad news for the U.S. economy.
In my new book, “10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less,” I take the lessons I learned long ago as a Senate staffer and combine them with the best in data-driven social science to make the case that politicians behave worse than usual when elections draw near.
And if elections make politicians worse at their jobs, one solution is to hold fewer elections — by making legislative terms at least a little bit longer. Three-year terms for the House of Representatives would be a step in the right direction, though six would probably be better. A little less accountability to the voters could offer a lot of benefits to those very voters.
Consider free trade agreements. Economists are in near-unanimous agreement on the widely-shared benefits of lower tariffs and freer trade. But because the public is so divided on trade, many politicians hate to vote on trade deals when an election looms.
The Senate, with its staggered terms, offers a great way to test this fear-of-free-trade theory, and economist Paola Conconi and her coauthors published a clean test in 2014. Conconi found that a senator was 10 percentage points less likely to vote for a trade bill when she was “in cycle,” less than two years from reelection. But that fear-of-free-trade effect disappears for senators who’ve already announced their retirement or who hold safe seats. So when economists are saying one thing and voters are saying another, it’s the senators in tight races who give ear to the wishes of the voters, and we the people who pay the price.
Former Senator Hillary Clinton perfectly illustrates the fear-of-free-trade theory. As Conconi says, “during her first [term] as senator from New York state, Hillary Clinton voted on six trade liberalization bills, four times in favor (during the first four years) and twice against (during the last two years).” When the voters called, they were, alas, obeyed.
While the Senate is the best place for evidence on the high cost of looming elections, the House of Representatives is the best place to deploy that evidence. The House obviously needs more distance from the voters. We all know how its two-year terms, brief by global standards, push most House members to run a near-perpetual election campaign. More importantly, being so close to the voters pushes them to follow their often short-sighted, poorly-informed demands. Just as voters pay too much attention to the election-year economy when deciding whom to choose for president, they pay too much attention to the short-run costs of policy reforms and too little attention to the long-run benefits.
House elections should be a modest check on the power of a runaway legislature, not a perpetual plebiscite. The Senate has it right: Six years, enough time for a legislator to establish a reputation, draft some laws, perform some oversight, build some relationships back in the home state and then, after about 70 months, to check back in with the voters.
Longer terms in the House would be one step down the path toward “10% Less Democracy.” Every so often a House member proposes a constitutional amendment to lengthen House terms, but these proposals have never had a groundswell of support.
Let’s hope that a couple of dozen House members – all with safe seats, and so with some distance from the voters – decide to join together in a quest for better government — government just a little further out of the reach of the masses.
Garett Jones is BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center and associate professor of economics at George Mason University. A former Senate staffer, he is the author of “10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less” (2020) and of “Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own” (2015). Follow him on Twitter @GarettJones.