What’s more important to the success of a government — short-term thinking or long-term thinking?
Why are terms of service for the House of Representatives only two years, while the terms for senators are six years? Why is a presidential term four years for a maximum of two terms while the terms of Supreme Court justices are for life?
The length of an office holder’s term affects his/her approach while in office. The framers of the Constitution chose two years for representatives to make them more attuned to the wants and wishes of their constituents. Politicians hate losing. Therefore, they will continually be checking the moods of their voters because the next election is just over the horizon.
Senators, on the other hand, know that the memories of their constituent are short. Six years is a long time in politics — time enough to enable senators to consider the long-term effects of the laws that they make.
One of main goals of the framers of the Constitution was to create balance and fairness in government. Having a bicameral (two house) legislature creates a constant tug of war between the more emotional short-term thinking of the House and the more relaxed and deliberative long-term approach in the Senate. By institutionalizing these two perspectives into the structure of Congress, it was hoped that good decisions would result for the nation.
Sometimes short-term thinking is more important. During the Great Depression, Harry Hopkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of commerce, stated this truth: “People don’t eat in the long run, they eat every day.”
Feeding them in the short term meant they would be around for the long term.
The long-term understanding warned of the danger of creating dependency and a welfare state. The very valid fear would be that the poor would get used to being fed without having to work. This would create generational poverty and for some it has.
Until the Great Depression of the 1930s, no president had served more than two terms. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms. The majority of people trusted him during an era of crises both domestic and foreign. The positive effect for the nation was the creation of federal programs like Social Security, which enabled all Americans to have a safety net in their old age. It also allowed older people to retire, opening up jobs for the young and cutting the high unemployment of the era.
The danger of more than two terms for the president is that holding power for a long time is addictive and tends toward dictatorship. Power is very difficult to give up.
Paradoxically, the strain of having to make continual difficult decisions wears out and ages a president over time. FDR died three months after being sworn in for his fourth term. Afterward, in 1951, Congress and the people passed the 22nd Amendment, allowing a president a maximum of two terms. This amendment both limited the potential for dictatorship and at the same time protected future presidents from literally working themselves to death.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life or until retirement. The founders’ objective was to protect justices from making short-term judgments in court cases in order to get re-elected rather than deciding cases for the long-term good of the nation.
The problem is that federal judges/justices have not been elected directly by the voters, which is contrary to democratic values. But, at the same time, this thinking can and has protected minorities from the tyranny of the majority when laws were passed by Congress or the states discriminating against a minority. An example was the Brown vs. Board decision, which ended racial discrimination in the South in the 1950s and 1960s against the will of the majority of southern white voters. These voters elected state representatives who favored Jim Crow segregation laws.
The answer to the question, “Which is better, short-term thinking, or long-term thinking?” is that it depends on the situation. The framers of the Constitution were wise enough to know that both approaches are important, depending on the context.
We, in our own personal decision-making, would be wise to consider our constitutional example before making major decisions. Balancing both short and long-term perspectives is a sign of maturity, both on a national and personal level.