Saturday, December 12, 2009
One of the peculiarities about the Canadian political system is the unelected Senate, because those appointed to be senators stay in their position untouched until they reach the age of 75 or decide to retire early, at which time the current prime minister simply appoints new senators to fill the seats, which almost always come from the prime minister's own party. Stephen Harper has been prime minister since 2006 and after three years the balance in the Senate is about to tip to the Conservatives. This means that he won't be able to blame the Senate for interfering with legislation anymore, and it also means that there are now no barriers to the incremental reform Harper wants to push through - eight-year terms, for example. Simply having a majority in the Senate isn't enough to completely change the system since that would require a constitutional change (which means input and agreement from all the provinces), but it would be possible to indirectly elect senators by having an election, after which the prime minister then appoints the candidate that won.
Personally I'm not sure what to think about Senate reform, since it's a good idea in theory but one of the nice aspects about the Senate is the fact that it doesn't have to worry about the ire of voters over short-term issues. A very recent example occurred just two days ago where the Senate altered a crime bill that was passed in the House.
A guaranteed eight-year term is not too bad an idea though, since Canadian elections have to occur within five years (which usually means around four years with a majority), which gives about half of the senators immunity from a potential silly issue of the day. Minority parliaments are also usually much shorter in length, and eight years would give senators the ability to avoid having to pack up and go back on the election trail every time tempers flare in Parliament and another unwanted election happens.
The two-year term limit for members of Congress in the United States shows what happens when terms are too short. Bill Clinton talked about that a few years back (can't remember where). Members of Congress are sometimes simply too beholden to their districts, because every two years they have to show up again to present the results of the past two years, which usually means bringing projects to one's own region in order to show the voters that they are being well taken care of. It also means that they have to fly back to their districts every weekend, and the schedule they are forced to endure simply to have something to show two years later is far too extreme. Perhaps three years would be ideal - half that of a senator, and keeps the political landscape from being too predictable with the mid-term congressional election that always occurs during the first term of a presidency. If members were elected for three years (let's say starting from 1992) it would look like this:
1992 - Presidential election, 3rd of the Senate, Congressional election
1994 - 3rd of the Senate
1995 - Congressional election
1996 - Presidential election, 3rd of the Senate
1998 - 3rd of the Senate, Congressional election
2000 - Presidential election, 3rd of the Senate
2001 - Congressional election
2002 - 3rd of the Senate
2004 - Presidential election, 3rd of the Senate, Congressional election
And repeat. This would make the first three years of one of the president's terms (assuming two terms) blessedly silent, with only a third of the Senate elected and nothing to do with Congress. It may not look like a huge difference but all the horse race activity (primaries, fundraising, etc.) would be cut in half and elected members would also effectively be able to look at issues with a 50% longer view than before.