Lyndon B. Johnson: Special Message to the Congress Proposing Constitutional Amendments Relating to Terms for House Members and the Electoral College System
January 20th, 1966
To the Congress of the United States:
In 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote:"Some men ascribe to the men of a preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment .... I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions .... But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."
I believe that in the interest of progress and sound modern government--and to nourish and strengthen our creative Federal system--we must amend our Constitution, to provide a four-year term of office for Members of the House of Representatives.
I believe that for the same reasons we must also eliminate those defects in the Electoral College system which make possible the frustration of the people's will in the election of their President and Vice President.
FOUR-YEAR TERM FOR HOUSE MEMBERS
Debate over the length of the House term is not new. It began in the Constitutional Convention, where those who thought annual elections were essential to freedom clashed with others, such as Madison, who held that three years were required "in a government so extensive, for members to form any knowledge of the various interests of the States to which they did not belong," and that without such knowledge "their trust could not be usefully discharged." Madison's thoughts are ruefully familiar to Members of the House today: he was certain that a one-year term would be "almost consumed in preparing for and traveling to and from the seat of national business," and that even with a two-year term none of the Representatives "who wished to be re-elected would remain at the seat of government."
Between the advocates of a one-year term--those who, bearing in mind recent English experience, feared the despotism of a government unchecked by the popular will--and those who saw a tenure of three years as necessary for wise administration, a compromise of two years was reached.
Thus there was little magic in the number two, even in the year of its adoption. I am convinced there is even less magic today, and that the question of tenure should be reexamined in the light of our needs in the twentieth century.
The authors of the Federalist Papers said about the House of Representatives:
"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, and an intimate sympathy with the people. Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependency and sympathy can be effectually secured. But what particular degree of frequency may be absolutely necessary for the purpose, does not appear to be susceptible of any precise calculation; and must depend on a variety of circumstances with which it may be connected."
The circumstances with which the two year term is presently connected are--
--the accelerating volume of legislation on which Members are required to pass. In the first Congress, 142 bills were introduced, resulting in 108 public laws. In the 88th Congress, 15,299 bills were introduced, of which 666 were enacted into public law.
--the increasingly complex problems that generate this flood of legislation, requiring Members to be familiar with an immense range of fact and opinion. It is no longer sufficient to develop solutions for an agricultural nation with few foreign responsibilities; now a man or woman chosen to represent his people in the House of Representatives must understand the consequences of our spiraling population growth, of urbanization, of the new scientific revolution, of our welfare and education requirements, and of our responsibilities as the world's most powerful democracy.
--longer sessions of Congress, made necessary by the burden of legislation and outstanding public issues. In less turbulent times, Members of Congress might conduct the public business with dispatch during election years, and spend the summer and autumn campaigning in their districts. Congress adjourned in April of 1904, June of 1906, May of 1908, and June of 1910. But increasing work loads have substantially extended the sessions. Thus it was in August of 1958 that Congress concluded its work, in September of 1960, October of 1962, and again in October of 1964. The competitive pressures imposed by the two-year term, when the incumbent must remain in Washington into the Fall to attend the public business, reduce his capacity to do either task--campaigning or legislating-with the complete attention his conscience and the public interest demand.
--the increasing costs of campaigning that biennially impose heavy burdens on those who represent vigorously contested districts, and that magnify the influence of large contributors, pressure groups, and special interest lobbyists.
It may be said that every elected official confronts similar circumstances in the 1960's. Yet it can be said of none that his power for the public good or ill is both so great as the Congressman's, and so sharply pressed in time.
For this public servant--part judge and author of laws, part leader of his people, part mediator between the executive branch and those he represents--is scarcely permitted to take his seat in the historic Hall of the House, when he must begin once more to make his case to his constituency.
The Congressman's effectiveness as a legislator is reduced by this.
His district's right to be fully represented in Congress is diminished by this. The nation's need to be led by its best qualified men, giving their full attention to issues on which our security and progress depend, is ignored by this. In the States, in private business, and indeed, in the Federal government itself, the wisdom of longer terms for senior officials has come steadily to be recognized. State after state has adopted a four-year gubernatorial term.
This Administration has made every effort to extend Ambassadorial tours of duty, to promote career civil servants to posts of higher responsibilities, and to retain Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers on the job for longer periods than before. For we have learned that brief and uncertain periods in office contribute--not to the best interests of democracy--but to harassed inefficiency and the loss of invaluable experience.
Thus I recommend that the Congress adopt this Amendment to the Constitution in the belief that it will--
--provide for each Member a sufficient period in which he can bring his best judgment to bear on the great questions of national survival, economic growth, and social welfare.
--free him from the inexorable pressures of biennial campaigning for re-election.
--reduce the cost--financial and political-of holding Congressional office.
--attract the best men in private and public life into competition for this high public office.
I am mindful of the principal reason advanced for maintaining the two-year term--that it is necessary if the voice of the people is to be heard, and changes in public opinion are to be registered on the conduct of public policy. My own experience in almost three decades in public office--and, I believe, the experience of Members of Congress today--is otherwise.
For we do not live in a day when news of Congressional action requires weeks to reach our constituents, nor when public opinion is obscured by time and distance. Communications media rush the news to every home and shop within minutes of its occurrence. Public opinion polls, and mountains of mail, leave little doubt about what our people think of the issues most vital to them. I do not fear deafness on the part of those who will take their seats in Congress for a four year term.
It is also vital to recognize the effect of a longer term on the authority of the House in making known the will of the people. Established in office for four years, the weight of the House in the councils of government is certain to increase. For the sake of democracy, that is a development devoutly to be welcomed.
I recommend that the amendment become effective no earlier than 1972.It is imperative that each Member of the House have the opportunity of campaigning during a Presidential election year. To divide the House into two classes, as some have proposed--one elected during the "offyear," one with the President--would create an unnecessary and wholly unfair division in that Body. It would also create severe problems in every state: as reapportionment is ordered and redistricting takes place.
"Off-year" elections are notorious for attracting far fewer voters--perhaps as much as 15% fewer--than Presidential elections.
If our purpose is to serve the democratic ideal by making the people's House more effective in its performance of the people's business, then we must require that its Members be chosen by the largest electorate our democracy can produce. That, assuredly, is the electorate called into being during a Presidential year.
I do not believe the Congress will wish to make the House the least representative of our three elective elements; by perpetually condemning half its membership to a shrunken electorate. Such a body could not long sustain its claim to be an equal partner in the work of representative government.
If this Amendment is to serve the public interest--if Members are to be free of campaigning for a period sufficiently long to enable them to master the work of the House--it is right that they should remain at that work during the entire term to which they are elected.
It would defeat the purpose of the Amendment, if a Member were free to campaign for the Senate without resigning his seat in the House. Because we seek to strengthen the House, and through it, representative government--not to provide a sanctuary and platform for further electoral contests--I recommend that no Member of either House be eligible for election as a Member of the other House until his own term has expired, unless, at least 30 days prior to that election, he submits his resignation from the office he holds.
Our democracy cannot remain static, a prisoner to the past, if it is to enrich the lives of coming generations. Laws and institutions-to paraphrase Jefferson--must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind, and must respond to the changing conditions of life itself.
One law that should be changed limits the term of office for one of the great arms of our government to a period too brief for the public good.
Let us no longer bind ourselves to it. Let us reform it. We shall better serve our people when we do.
Because I profoundly agree with former President Eisenhower, when he said, "Congressmen ought to be elected for four years, at the same time with the President," I urge the Congress promptly to consider a Constitutional amendment extending the term of office for the House of Representatives to four years.
REFORM OF THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE SYSTEM
In my special message to the Congress last January, I urged an amendment to the Constitution to reform the Electoral College system. I renew this recommendation and strongly reaffirm the need to reform the Electoral College system. There are several major defects in the existing system. They should be eliminated in order to assure that the people's will shall not be frustrated in the choice of their President and Vice President.
First, there presently exists the possibility that the constitutional independence of unpledged electors will be exploited, and that their votes will be manipulated in a close presidential race to block the election of a major candidate in order to throw the election into the House of Representatives. This grave risk should be removed.
Second, if the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, the existing system suffers from other fundamental defects. In such an election, the House of Representatives would be empowered to elect a President from the three highest candidates. However, each State casts only one vote, with the result that the least populous States have the same vote in the election of the President as the most populous States.
As early as 1823, Madison reached the conclusion that "the present rule of voting for President by the House of Representatives is so great a departure from the republican principle of numerical equality, and even from the Federal rule, which qualifies the numerical by a State equality, and is so pregnant also, with a mischievous tendency in practice, that an amendment to the Constitution on this point is justly called for by all its considerate and best friends."
I firmly believe that we should put an end to this undemocratic procedure. Third, if the electoral vote is indecisive under the existing system, the President is elected by the House of Representatives, but the Vice President is elected by the Senate. This creates the possibility of the election of a President and a Vice President from different parties. That possibility should not exist. To prevent its realization, the President and the Vice President should both be elected by the same body. Fourth, the Twenty-third Amendment makes no provision for participation by the District of Columbia in an election of the President by the House of Representatives, or of the Vice President by the Senate.
I firmly believe that we should extend to the District of Columbia all the rights of participation in the election of a President and Vice President which the 50 States may exercise.
Fifth, existing law fails to provide for the death of the President-elect or Vice President-elect between election day and the counting of the electoral votes in December. There is also no provision in the Constitution to cover the contingency presented by the death of a candidate for President or Vice President shortly before the popular election in November. These gaps should now be filled.
Elimination of these defects in our Constitution are long overdue. Our concepts of self-government and sound government require it.
Congress can now, in the words of Daniel Webster, "perform something worthy to be remembered," by uprooting the more objectionable features in the system of electing a President and Vice President, and thereby helping to preserve representative government and the two-party system.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON
The White House
January 20, 1966