Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 22: We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
Q22: We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
A. four (4)
B. six (6)
C. two (2)
D. eight (8)
How often to have elections was a hard question—too often, and the members of Congress cannot focus on their work or gain expertise, but not often enough, and elected officials will lose touch with their constituents. The Framers decided to make the Senate the less frequently elected house in Congress. They would still be accountable to those who chose them, but with longer terms of six years.
Six years in office would give senators a bit more independence and stability but also the ability to gain more specialized knowledge and have a longer-term perspective.
This extra time, with the more stable six-year term, was especially beneficial because of the distinctive jobs that the Senate has. The Senate is responsible for ratifying treaties, and so will need foreign policy knowledge one is less likely to get in one’s pre-congressional life. Thus, because the Senate has more of a focus on foreign policy, the Framers wanted a more stable house with greater continuity and expertise. Similarly, because members of the Senate confirm federal judges and executive branch officials, one may want them to have a longer-term perspective and familiarity with qualifications, reputations, and the like (see Federalist 62 and 63).
In addition to term lengths of six years, the Senate also has staggered terms, meaning that only one third of senators are up for reelection every two years. The argument for such staggered terms is also one of stability, both in terms of knowledge and of preventing hasty policy change. If the entire Senate were up for election every six years, there would be a legitimate risk of instability and a collective loss of experience, especially on foreign policy and other more technical issues. Staggered terms ensure major policy changes cannot be made after a snap judgment.
In this activity, students will have a chance to debate the terms of office for United States senators. They will learn about how other places have set longer or shorter terms for their upper house, as well as the purpose of the Senate. They will then take one of three positions: the terms of the Senate should be shortened (as they are for state senates), they should be kept as is, or they should be lengthened (as several members of the Convention proposed.)
- Provide each group with the Debate Directions.
- Provide each group with a Debate Outline.
- Provide each student with a copy of Senate Term Lengths (includes Federalist 62/63 excerpts)
- Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Ideally, each group of 3 should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- Provide each group with the necessary materials.
- Explain that they will debate the necessity of qualifications for office.
- Assign each group one of three topics:
- The six-year term of senators should remain completely the same.
- The six-year terms of senators should be increased in length.
- The six year terms of senators should be reduced in length.
- Provide the groups at least 15 minutes to brainstorm.
- At the end of the brainstorm, instruct the students to move on to preparing their debate. Have them complete the debate outline to organize their argument. You will want to provide them with at least 15 minutes, but extend the time as needed.
- Once the groups are ready, organize them into larger discussion groups. These groups will debate the qualifications. You may want to allot an entire class period for this.
- Each large discussion group will have one group that supports keeping the qualifications the same, one group that supports increasing the qualifications, and one group that supports lowering the qualifications.
- Each side will present its opening statement and three reasons to support it.
- The three sides will then discuss their points as a whole and come to a consensus on whether or not the qualifications should remain the same, increase, or lower.
- At the end of the time allotted, ask each large group to tell the class which of the three sides they chose and why.
Note: Depending on the class, you may or may not want to use the Debate Directions. These were developed to help guide younger students and may not be necessary for teenage or adult students.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events, and historical events.
One of the benefits to an extended term of office, such as a lifetime appointment, is that it allows a person to gain wisdom and experience—and put them to use. When the Founding Fathers were deciding how long to make each office’s term, they wanted to find a term was long enough for senators to gain wisdom and experience, but not so long that they were no longer connected to the will of the people.
The Founding Fathers did not agree on everything. At one point, they argued about the length of senatorial terms. Eventually, they came to agree on a specific limit. How long is a term and do you think this is an adequate length of time? Why or why not? Does the fact that elections are staggered impact your answer, and if so, how?
There are no limits to how many times someone can be elected to the Senate. For example, Senator Robert C. Byrd (WV) served for 51 years, and Senator Strom Thurmond (SC) served for 49 years. Some people have argued that there should be limits to how many terms a senator can serve. Do you agree? What are the pros and cons to this?