How long does a US Congressman serve

Below we publish an article by John H. Aldrich (PhD in Rochester), Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. His areas of specialization are American politics and behavior, formal theory and methodology. He is the author and co-author of several books including Why Parties? and Before the Convention, Linear Probability, Logit and Probit Models, and a number of books on the election. The last one, Change and Continuity in the 2000 and 2002 Elections, was published recently. His articles have appeared in numerous magazines.

While the media will primarily focus on the presidential election in 2004, Americans are also casting their votes to elect thousands more politicians to office. In particular, the US Congress elections could be as competitive as the presidential elections, and they could be almost as important. At the moment, the balance of power between the two major parties in Congress is fairly balanced. In fact, Republicans only have a majority of 12 seats (out of a total of 435) in the House of Commons - the House of Representatives - and only 51 out of 100 seats in the Senate - the House of Lords.

The congressional elections are also important because of the central role of Congress in the political decision-making process. In contrast to a parliamentary system, the American system provides for the separation of powers between Congress and the President. Congress makes and passes all laws. Also in contrast to the parliamentary system, party discipline is often less strictly adhered to. Members of Congress can vote on measures as they see fit, including in whatever way they consider most appropriate for their re-election. As a result, Congressmen have to win over each party member individually, rather than having the unanimous support of a highly disciplined party. So every victory or defeat in Congress becomes important to both parties.

Separate and independent elections for each office can easily create a situation where one party controls Congress while a member of the other party is president. This so-called split government has become common. In the past 24 years different parties have controlled the House of Representatives and the Presidency 16 times, with Republicans holding a majority in the House since 1994. From 1994 to 2000 - the last six years of Democratic President Bill Clinton's eight-year administration - they also controlled the Senate.

In the 2000 elections, Republicans won the presidency and retained their majority in the House of Representatives. However, both parties held 50 seats in the Senate. The constitution gives the Vice President (Republican Dick Cheney) the decisive vote in the Senate. This gave the Republicans the very narrowest majority after the 2000 elections and thus the sole control of the federal government.

In June 2001, Republican Senator James Jeffords left the Republican Party. This returned control of the Senate to the Democrats and a divided government. For their part, the Democrats lost that tiny majority in the 2002 elections; with that, the Republicans regained sole control.

How the Congress is elected

The House of Representatives and the Senate have almost the same powers, but they are elected in very different ways. The founding fathers of the American Republic wanted the members of the House of Representatives to be close to the public and to reflect their wishes as faithfully as possible in the legislation. Because of this, the founders envisaged a fairly large House of Representatives and frequent elections (every two years). Initially, some felt that a two-year term was too long. Today there is more concern that the incumbents will always have to stand for re-election due to the frequent elections and are therefore more interested in an election result in their favor than in the well-being of the nation.

Each seat in the House of Representatives represents a geographical constituency, and each member is elected by a simple majority of the votes of the individual constituency (single-member district), i.e. the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Each of the 50 states has at least one seat in the House of Representatives, the rest are allocated to the states according to the number of inhabitants. Alaska, for example, has very few residents and therefore only one seat in the House of Representatives. California has the highest population and currently has 53 seats.

The Senate is designed to represent the states, and in fact, the senators were originally elected by the state legislatures. Only since the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913 have they been directly elected by their state's voters. Each state elects two senators for a six-year term, with a third of the Senate seats up for re-election every two years. In reality, the senators are elected by a majority of the electorate, with one state serving as the electoral district with majority voting rights.

Elections decided by majority vote - especially in electoral districts with majority voting rights - usually lead to a system with only two large political parties. This is due to the fact that third-party candidates have little chance of winning the election. Voters prefer not to "waste" their votes on what they consider to be a hopeless campaign, and candidates who want to win the election avoid alliances with hopeless parties. Since smaller, marginalized parties do not win a majority, the minority usually benefits one of the two large parties rather than the splinter groups with less popular programs. In all of its history, the United States has never had more than two major parties. Even today, at the height of so-called "personality elections," third parties and their candidates often try to win the elections, but they rarely succeed. After the 2002 election, only two of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives were independent and there was only one independent senator in the 100-MP Senate. All other seats in both houses were won by members of the Republican or Democratic Party - the two major parties in the United States since 1860.

Influencing factors in the congressional elections

In American history, congressional elections have mostly been partisan. Since most voters have long been supporters of one party or the other, they have tended to cast their vote according to the party line. Congressmen were often re-elected, and sometimes held their positions for decades, because the majority of their voters supported their party. Your performance as incumbent did little (or diminish) the level of support. In more recent times, the personality of the candidate and the campaign issues have been factors that have weighed heavily on party loyalty.

Indeed, the federal elections have become increasingly candidate-based since the 1960s. Candidates' ability to campaign on television, raise enormous sums of money, conduct polls, and other means of modern campaigning have made voters more aware of the candidate as an individual. As a result, in addition to party loyalty, voters began to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates.

Candidate voting is of great benefit to incumbents in Congress. The incumbents are much more likely to be seen on television and in the newspapers than their challengers. With increased media presence and significant influence over public policy, incumbents can also raise much more money to campaign. For these and other reasons, incumbents who stand for re-election have great chances of winning. In 2002, 398 House members ran for re-election, and only 16 lost. Of the 26 senators running, only three lost. With a re-election rate of 88 percent for the Senate and 96 percent for the House of Representatives, congressional elections are rightly not only related to the candidate, but also to the incumbent.

With more money and media coverage, the incumbents win because - unlike their challengers - they are known by the electorate. Opinion polls show that nine out of ten respondents know the name of their incumbent senator or their representative in the House of Representatives, but barely more than half know the name of the main challenger - even towards the end of the election campaign. Because of their low profile, the challengers find it very difficult to convince the funders to support them. Unfortunately, this often results in potentially strong candidates failing to stand up against incumbent incumbents, and those running find it difficult to raise funds to campaign.

The amount of money that congressional candidates receive from political action committees (PACs) underscores the importance of money, party and office in congressional elections. The amounts paid by the PAC to the two major parties from 1983 to 2000 (the last year recorded in statistics) are shown in Figure 1. This graph shows the total increase in the electoral funds over this period. It is also noteworthy that the Democrats had a considerable advantage in supporting the PAC until 1994, that is, during the years when they were the majority party. In the last three election cycles, Republicans caught up with Democrats in support from the PAC. In such a head-to-head race, both parties now receive virtually the same amount from the PACs.

Chart 2 shows the amount of donations made to incumbents and their challengers over the same period. The incumbent's enormous benefit in donation is evident in every election. In fact, the amount given to incumbents by the PACs has increased significantly over the past two decades, while the amount given to the challengers has increased much less. This graph alone shows why such a high percentage of incumbents are re-elected.

As the voters become more familiar with the challengers, the more likely it is that both candidates will be treated equally. The voters then choose the candidate who, in their opinion, represents the more powerful program.

Which appeals are most effective in congressional elections? That too has changed, especially in the last elections.

Until recently, congressional elections were not decided on national issues, but on the particular interests and concerns of a district. This was particularly true of the mid-term elections - that is, those held in the middle of the president's four-year term - which therefore do not necessarily focus on national issues such as the presidential campaign. This local orientation of the elections goes well with the growing importance of candidate-based elections, as candidates can tailor their speeches to the specific constituency.

The 1994 elections were a turning point. The Republican Party won a majority in the Senate and won an impressive 52 seats from the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. For the first time in 40 years it got its own majority there. Part of the strategy of their party leader, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was a ten-point legislative program called the "Treaty with America". At the beginning of the campaign, a large majority of Republican candidates for the House of Representatives supported this treaty, which became unusually important after the election. Gingrich promised - with great success - the new Republican majority would pass the treaty in the House of Representatives in just 100 days. These efforts increased the standing of the House of Representatives and its leadership. This set standards according to which national issues and a kind of national party program could be an important part of the mid-term election campaign.

The two midterm elections held since 1994 were just as surprising as the 1994 elections. In 1998, the incumbent president's party won seats from the opposition party for the first time in the House of Representatives (in this case five and six seats, respectively). Although the Republican Party retained its majority in Congress, it ended up losing out in the 1998 elections. Many party members felt that this loss was due to the lack of a clear national position on the campaign program. The Democrats failed to win seats in the 2002 election and missed a majority. And again, true or not, many party leaders attributed the defeat to the party's failure to produce a national election manifesto.

2004 Congress elections

The dramatic changes in congressional elections over the past decade make predictions risky. Perhaps the most important fact is that the old way of campaigning is no longer the most effective and that voters come to a decision differently. Even so, there are a few things to look out for in 2004.

The most pressing question for the 2004 election is whether the Democrats can win enough seats to regain a majority in the House of Representatives. Only 34 seats in the Senate are available, 19 of which are currently occupied by the Democrats. In addition, last time there was less competition among Republicans, and 22 elections are being held in the states where George W. Bush won in 2000. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Democrats can expect to win seats in the Senate. So the Senate Republican majority appears secure, and attention will turn to the House of Representatives.

Both parties are trying to attract the strongest candidates and mobilize resources for the House of Representatives elections. Much depends on attracting new candidates to the House of Representatives, especially those with campaigning experience such as members of the state legislatures. Equally important, however, is the extent to which your party's presidential candidate strengthens or weakens the chances of candidates for the House of Representatives, especially those competing for seats whose current holder does not stand for re-election. A combination of strong and experienced candidates for the House of Representatives and a good election campaign for the party's presidential candidate can lead to the largest variability in the distribution of seats between the two parties.

Over the past few decades, "the length of the president's skirt" - that is, the number of voters who vote for the same party for Congress and the President - has decreased. The two choices are relatively independent of each other. That said, in the 2000 elections, in which the two presidential candidates received almost equal votes, that connection did not have an advantage for either party in the congressional election. With an incumbent likely to run for re-election, and with such a balance of seats in both parties in Congress, the balance between the two parties in Congress could very well depend on the votes cast in the presidential election. If President Bush can maintain the high approval ratings he received during and immediately after the war with Iraq, he could strengthen his party's status in both the House and Senate. Should his approval ratings drop, possibly due to economic problems, then it is conceivable that he will sweep away the decades-long Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

If national issues become increasingly important in the congressional elections, 2004 will be the presidential candidates and their political program as the most significant national force. This is the most difficult aspect to predict. At the time this article was written, the Democratic nomination for the presidential candidate was still completely open. Numerous candidates are running for nomination, and none of them stand out as a top candidate. At this point in time we cannot say whether a liberal or moderate candidate, or a pro or anti-war candidate, will be high on the Democratic electoral list. If President Bush runs as expected, we can assume that he will be nominated again.
Domestic issues are likely to be the central theme again in the 2004 election campaign. But the war on terrorism is also likely to remain the most important foreign policy issue. It has been some time - since the collapse of the Soviet Union - that international issues have been more prominent in a presidential election. How the two sides shape the debate or how the public will react is therefore extremely uncertain. For now, however, it looks like the American economy is the main concern of voters. Once again, however, there is great uncertainty, in this case about whether the economy will improve significantly (and this is also seen), thereby favoring the Republicans, or whether it will remain weak or possibly even tend towards a recession and thus cause the Democrats to regain strength .
In other words, in the 2004 election, party political control of the House and Senate is at stake because of the balance of power over the past decade in the distribution of seats. There is a great deal at stake for American democracy as the direction of politics changes when one party, the other, or neither is in control. This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that the outcome of the congressional election may very well be determined by the public's reaction to the two presidential candidates, who the Democratic Party candidate will be, what he stands for and how the public reacts to him. All of this makes the 2004 election campaign unusually exciting.

Original text: Congressional Elections

America Service, February 25, 2004
Embassy of the United States of America, Berlin, Germany