Order Code RS21574
Updated July 30, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Proposals to Change the
House Term of Office to Four Years
Sula P. Richardson
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
The Constitution prescribes a two-year term of office for Members of the U.S.
House of Representatives (Article I, Section 2). Some observers have suggested that
the term should be longer, particularly in light of the growth in the number of
constituents represented, demands on Members’ time, volume and complexity of
legislation, and costs of election campaigns. A change in the length of the term would
require an amendment to the Constitution. Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas
has introduced a proposal that would provide for electing Representatives to one term
of two years and two terms of four years within each ten-year census cycle. The
resolution — H.J.Res. 66 — has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. This
report provides an overview of efforts to lengthen the term of office for Members of the
U.S. House of Representatives to four years. It discusses the perceived need to lengthen
the term, arguments for and against lengthening the term, selected problems that might
be solved and created if the term were changed to four years, and some types of fouryear proposals that have been introduced. The report will be updated as events warrant.
The current two-year House term was the result of a compromise reached at the
Constitutional Convention in 1787 by advocates of a one-year term and advocates of a
three-year or longer term. Delegates favoring the one-year term (e.g., Elbridge Gerry,
Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth) argued that annual elections would help to ensure that
Members would be more responsive to their constituents’ views, concerns, and needs.
Furthermore, Members of Congress under the Articles of Confederation were elected
annually; and the term of office for members of the State Assembly in all but three states
was one year.1
At the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the members of the lower branch of the South
Carolina legislature were elected every two years, while Connecticut and Rhode Island elected
their members every six months (Federalist Papers No. 53).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Other delegates (e.g., James Madison and Alexander Hamilton) advocated a term of
at least three years. They argued that a shorter term would not allow new Members
sufficient time to acquaint themselves with their duties or to gain sufficient knowledge
about national issues and interests, which are inherently complex. In addition, a term of
one year would “be almost consumed in preparing for and traveling to and from the seat
of national business.”2 Furthermore, elections held too frequently might promote
indifference among the electorate. Reflecting a compromise, the proposed new
Constitution, which provided that House Members “shall be chosen every second year,”
was referred to the states and was ratified. Thus, any change in the two-year term requires
amendment of the Constitution.
The first proposed constitutional amendment to change the length of the House term
to four years was introduced by Rep. Lewis Selye of New York on February 8, 1869.
Since then, more than 200 proposals have been introduced to lengthen the House term to
four years. Only one of them was voted on in either House. During the 59th Congress,
the resolution — H.J.Res. 120 — was rejected in the House by a vote of 89 to 86 on June
20, 1906. (Constitutional amendments require two-thirds, rather than a simple majority
for passage before being referred to the states for ratification.)
A number of factors have contributed to advocates’ perception that a longer House
term is needed. Some contend that, given the growth in the number of constituents each
Member represents, and the volume and complexity of modern legislation, Members need
a longer term to address policy issues and carry out their legislative duties. Reportedly,
the “House of Representatives in the very First Congress in both of its sessions proposed
only 142 bills of which 118 became law.”3 During the 107th Congress, 9,130 bills and
joint resolutions were introduced, of which 377 became public law.4 Furthermore, with
the short, two-year term, they suggest that Members are always running for reelection.
Some say a longer term could increase Members’ opportunity to discharge their legislative
duties without being overly concerned with campaigning. In addition, some say
protracted daily sessions combined with conflicts between floor and committee work,5
and increased demands on Members’ time within the short two-year time frame, can be
so disruptive to Members’ family life that some may retire from the House before they or
their constituents want.
Gaillard Hunt and James Brown Scott, eds. Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787,
Committee of the Whole, in Remarks of Mr. Madison, Tuesday, June 12, 1787 (Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1920), p. 91.
Extension of remarks of Rep. Herbert Tenzer, of New York in U.S. Congress, Senate,
Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Four-Year Term for
Representatives, hearings on S.J.Res. 72, S.J.Res. 126, S.J.Res. 128, S.J.Res. 132, and H.J.Res.
394, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., July 13-14, 1966 (Washington: GPO, 1967), p. 26. (Rep. Tenzer made
the remarks in support of a resolution he had introduced that would have provided for a threeyear House term.)
Precise comparison of figures cannot be made, due to the differences in definitions of measures
and how they were recorded and categorized for early Congresses. For example, the distinction
between public bills and private bills or among bills, joint resolutions, simple resolutions, and
concurrent resolutions is not always made in various sources.
For further discussion on scheduling, see CRS Report RL30825, House Schedule: Recent
Practices and Proposed Options, by Richard S. Beth, summary.
A major challenge lies in devising a simple, comprehensive, and fair system that
leaves the 10-year census-taking and reapportionment cycle unchanged. Because 10 is
not evenly divisible by four, four-year terms tend to be somewhat problematic (though not
unworkable). Of course, there is the option of amending Article I, Section 2, such that the
census-taking and reapportionment cycle is changed to some frequency that is evenly
divisible by four (e.g., every 12 years). Alternatively, supporters have offered a variety of
proposals aimed at addressing reapportionment and other issues.
Issues in Debate
Pro/Con Arguments. Modern debate on whether the two-year term should be
lengthened (usually to four years) includes the following arguments:
Arguments in Favor.
A longer term would give Members more time to acquire experience and
expertise on issues.
Elections held less frequently (e.g., every four years) would give
Members more time to attend to their legislative responsibilities and
enable them to concentrate on programs which reflect their constituents’
needs and interests.
The high incumbency rate suggests general satisfaction with the job
incumbents are doing; therefore, it would save time and energy to
conduct campaigns less frequently.
Elections held less frequently could increase voter interest and hence
A longer term would result in fewer elections, which would presumably
lead to a reduction in campaign costs.
Arguments in Opposition.
Biennial elections keep the Congress in close check and in closer touch
with the people, thus making the Members more responsive to
Decreasing the frequency of elections might diminish public influence on
Members’ use of advanced technology makes today’s voluminous and
complex legislation manageable in the present two-year time frame.
Members can rely upon institutional resources, including the committee
system, interest groups, and nonpartisan support agencies to augment
their own personal expertise or to increase their competence on issues,
reducing the need for a longer term.
While holding elections less frequently would reduce administrative
costs, it would not necessarily reduce the total expense of elections. A
candidate’s campaign expenses are determined by factors (e.g., radio,
television advertisements and other media costs, travel, campaign staff
salaries, campaign events) other than frequency of elections. Less
frequent elections could even raise the stakes by extending the time
frame for both fund-raising and campaigning.
Four-Year Term Proposals
Most of the proposals offered by proponents of a four-year term may be divided into
categories based upon the timing of elections.6 Some proponents favor dividing the
House into classes, and electing the classes alternately, so that (depending upon the
number of classes) some portion of the House would be up for election every two years
(i.e., staggered elections). Some advocate electing all the Members at the same time —
in presidential election years (i.e., concurrent elections). Others support electing all
Members at the same time but to one term of two years and two terms of four years within
each ten-year census cycle (two-year, four-year, four-year combination).
Staggered Elections. Proponents of staggered elections have suggested dividing
the House into two classes7 elected alternately to four year terms. They believe staggered
elections would maintain the fundamental concept of a House kept close to the people,
since half of the House Members would be elected every two years. A two-year election
interval would be retained while simultaneously providing the advantages of a four-year
term. In addition, staggered elections would help to guard against upsetting the separation
of powers doctrine and checks and balances tradition because House elections would
occur in presidential election years and in non-presidential election years.
Opponents of staggering House elections argue that it would upset a fundamental
difference in the natures of the House and Senate, the former being a non-continuing
body, which is reconstituted at the beginning of each Congress (i.e., every two years), the
latter being a body that continues from one Congress to another. It would also disrupt the
basic concept of a House kept close to the people because the entire House would not be
up for election each Congress. Further, every eligible voter in a state would not have the
opportunity to vote for a Representative every two years because only half of the
congressional districts in each state would be up for election every two years. This would
be even more problematic for states with a single Representative (one Member elected at
large) and states with an odd number of congressional districts.
In addition, some have argued that, within the context of reapportionment and
resulting changes in the number of seats states may have, a House multiple-class and
alternating term system could be burdensome and complicated. For example, an objective
would be to develop an unbiased system for categorizing the various congressional
districts, depending upon the number of classes and the decennial reapportionment; the
frequency of elections would thus vary not only from state to state but also within states
(but arguably no more so than in the current Senate class system).
Elections Concurrent with the Presidential Election. Proponents of electing
all House Members in presidential election years argue that it would maximize the
likelihood of effective control of Congress and the Presidency by the same political party,
thereby increasing executive-legislative harmony and giving more assurance that the
President’s programs would be considered, if not enacted. Furthermore, it would not
SeeTable 1. Also, note that the proposals described in this report and variations of them, while
typical, are not the only types of four-year proposals that have been introduced.
The majority of the proposals for staggered elections provide for dividing the House into two
classes, but there have also been proposals for three-class systems.
upset the delicate balance wherein total membership of one of the houses is elected at one
time. Moreover, it would not create the problems in staggering seats evenly within
individual states that staggered elections could pose.
Opponents contend that electing all Members in the same year of presidential
elections would upset the checks and balances in our three levels of government. It could
make the legislative branch too dependent upon the executive branch, since all Members
would be elected in presidential years. Further, it might have a negative effect on the twoparty system, because it would discontinue midterm elections, which provide an
opportunity for the party that lost the previous presidential election to gain seats in both
houses. Also, in this context, the midterm congressional elections are often viewed as a
referendum on both the incumbent President and his party.
Two-Years, Four-Years, Four-Years Combination.8 Some other proponents
of a four-year House term would rather elect the entire House at the same time but to one
term of two years and two terms of four years within each ten-year census cycle (two-year,
four-year, four-year combination). For example, if such legislation were passed by the
Congress and approved by the states within the next seven years, the term extension
would begin with the election of 2010. The entire House would be up for election three
times during the ten-year cycle beginning with the 2010 election. House Members elected
in 2010 would have a term of two years (2011 and 2012, serving from January 3, 2011
to January 3, 2013). House Members elected in 2012 would have a term of four years
(2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, serving from January 3, 2013 to January 3, 2017); and House
Members elected in 2016 would have a term of four years (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020,
serving from January 3, 2017 to January 3, 2021). The cycle would begin again with the
House elections of the year 2020. Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas introduced
a proposal of this type on July 24, 2003. The measure — H.J.Res. 66 — was referred to
the House Committee on the Judiciary.
Proponents of providing for a term of two years and two terms of four years in a tenyear cycle contend that it would accommodate the census and changes in reapportionment
of the House that can occur after the decennial census. It would also maintain the basic
tenet that the entire House membership is up for election simultaneously. In addition, it
combines advantages of some of the other types of four-year term proposals. For
example, within a decade, if elections for the two-year term were held in a nonpresidential year (e.g., 2010), elections for both four-year terms would be held in
presidential election years (e.g., 2012 and 2016). In the succeeding decade, the reverse
would occur. That is, the election for the two-year term would be held in a presidential
year (i.e., 2020) and elections for both four-year terms would be held in non-presidential
years (i.e., 2022 and 2026). As a result, a rotation of a sort (relative to presidential
election years) would occur within and across decades (see Table 1).
Opponents of the 2-4-4 plan argue that within each ten-year cycle, there would be
only one interval of two years when voters would have the opportunity to effectively
Discussion is based upon Members being elected to the two-year term in year ending in 0 (e.g.,
2010); four year term in year ending in 2 (e.g., 2012) and a four-year term in year ending in 6
(2016) within each ten year cycle. The 2-4- 4 combination would begin again with the decennial
census of 2020.
register their assessment of the job their Representative is doing, as compared to five such
opportunities within the same ten-year time frame under the current system. The 2-4-4
plan could also upset the delicate system of checks and balances between the executive
and legislative branches, depending upon whether the elections for four-year terms
occurred in presidential or non-presidential years. In addition, candidates might be less
inclined to seek election to the shorter two-year terms.
Resignation from the House to Run for the Senate. In an effort to increase
Senate support for a longer House term, some of the proposals for a longer House term
also provide that no Member of the House may run for the Senate unless he or she resigns
from the House before seeking nomination or election to the Senate.
Table 1. Four-Year House Term Proposals by Type and Election Year
(two classes elected alternately) b
Class B (½)
Class A (½)
(2 yr-4 yr-4yr
within 10-yr. cycle)
For the purposes of this report, concurrent elections means electing all House Members in presidential
For the purposes of this report, staggered elections means dividing the House as equally as possible into
two classes and electing those classes alternately, such that one-half of the House Members would be
elected every two years.