A new three-year cycle would entail:
Two-year terms in the House and, especially, four-year terms for president have run their course. Lame-duck presidencies are worsening and becoming more frequent. The Permanent Campaign is making governing harder, taking time from citizens' lives too, and driving voters away.
Amending the U.S. Constitution should be difficult. Accordingly, this idea is a thought experiment, a longer-term solution that needs to be vetted first. If lame-duck presidencies and the permanent campaign continue to worsen, a three-year election cycle may build appeal.
There are. Voting rights, the gerrymander, campaign finance and international intrusion all warrant attention and action. But solving them will not reverse the declining value of presidential second terms or stop the permanent campaign from grinding down our democracy.
Not always. Like bridges and other infrastructure, repair or replacement is necessary when erosion occurs. If the schedule of our elections no longer serves us well, we need to consider changing it. In the years and decades ahead, a three-year election cycle may be seen as long overdue.
You're in the right place. Through the content on this website, the Structure Matters Blog and links to articles and other publications, you can find out more and follow developments. The Additional Features section is a good place to start.
"Presidential Second Terms Are Not Cursed, But the Timing of Reelection Has Become So," June 2018. In this article I review the history of presidential term-length consideration and make the case for a first term of six years and a second term of three years.
In this Sunday Dialogue: A Single Seven-Year Term for the President? (April 28, 2013), I introduce the idea of a six-year first term and a three-year second term.
In Evaluating the terms of a president (Letters, January 8, 2014), I indicate the merits of changing term lengths rather than term limits.
In this column, Election Reform: It’s About Time (May 3, 2013), I present an overall case for the three-year election cycle. Its focus is on time and the permanent campaign.
At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison proposed three-year terms in the House. This structure actually was the first to be adopted by the delegates. However, supporters of single-year terms regrouped and offered the two-year term compromise that was included in the final version of the document and remains in effect today.
The ideas that four years are too short a term and that reelection pressures and distractions are worth avoiding are not new. In fact, the proposal for a single six-year term for the president was first introduced in Congress in 1826. This plan has now been submitted more than 200 times. Despite its appeal, it deserves to fail for removing entirely the incentive and accountability of reelection.
The issues of term limits and term lengths are related but different. The three-year cycle is anchored by acceptance of the two-term limit for president imposed by the 22nd Amendment. The benefits of the proposal, however, are derived by the change in term lengths: a first term of six years followed by a second term of three years.
The Permanent Campaign has become both permanent -- the next election cycle begins before the prior one ends -- and about campaigning (it originally referred to a style of governing). It repels the governed and eats at our time as much as it skews governing policies and leaves officeholders with less time to govern.
The 22nd Amendment, adopted in 1951, limits presidents to two terms. It is not the cause of lame-duck second terms but it exacerbates the problem. Other factors that diminish presidential performance in years 5-8 include social and technological change, voting behavior and the news cycle. We now expect and accept less from presidents in their second terms.
In the second-term midterm elections, we repudiate the president we reelected just two years before. This "six-year itch" election (credit: Kevin Phillips) is so predictable that we can't help but question the merits of reelection being conducted at the "four-year crutch."
The structure of our democracy has multiple aspects. It includes such topics as the electoral college, the presidential nomination process, the gerrymander, voter turnout, checks and balances and even taxes. These and other structural issues will be addressed in future blog posts and articles.
Rick worked for 40 years at nonprofit organizations in Washington, DC, including the Eisenhower Institute, the American Society of International Law and the Center for Responsive Politics. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in political science from George Washington University and earned an MBA from the University of Maryland.
Rick's participation in and close observation of Washington politics over four decades led him to focus on longer-term, nonpartisan features of government. Today he is addressing structural issues and impacts, such as term lengths and the permanent campaign. In particular, he is writing a book about the three-year election cycle.