As I was looking this evening for a speech supporting the Vietnam War to accompany my class’s reading of The Things They Carried, I came across something I hadn’t heard before: in 1966, Lyndon Baines Johnson proposed making the terms for members of Congress last four years. In his State of the Union address, Johnson made the case:
The present 2-year term requires most Members of Congress to divert enormous energies to an almost constant process of campaigning — depriving this Nation of the fullest measure of both their skill and their wisdom. Today, too, the work of government is far more complex than in our early years, requiring more time to learn and more time to master the technical tasks of legislating. And a longer term will serve to attract more men of the highest quality to political life. The Nation, the principle of democracy, and, I think, each congressional district, will all be better served by a 4-year term for Members of the House. And I urge your swift action.
Loathe as I would be to suggest this idea now that Ryan Zinke represents Montana in Washington, Johnson’s proposal, despite its sexist language, makes even more sense today than it did in the 1960s. Our newest Congressman started a PAC before he won his election and is already on the conservative talk show circuit, no doubt hoping to raise his profile for wealthy donors.
Four-year terms might not address the abuses of campaign finance and they might not eliminate the role of money in our elections, but they might just give candidates enough time in office to cast votes that are about something other than winning an election a few months down the road.
In the end, I settled on Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority speech for my class, an excellent contrast with the Martin Luther King Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence speech we have been studying.