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ArtI.S3.C1.4 Six-Year Senate Terms

Article I, Section 3, Clause 1:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

Although the Seventeenth Amendment superseded Article I, Section 3, Clause 1, it incorporated the six-year Senate term the Framers had provided in Article I, Section 3, Clause 1.

During the Constitutional Convention, the Framers discussed extensively the appropriate term for Senators and Representatives to serve in Congress. Proposals for Senate terms ranged from life terms subject to good behavior1 to limited terms ranging from three to nine years.2 The Framers appear to have recognized a relationship between the length of Senate and House terms and the respective roles of the two houses. For instance, after reducing a proposed three-year House term to two years in order to compromise with advocates for one-year House terms,3 the Framers reduced the seven-year Senate term, which had been discussed in conjunction with the three-year House term, to six years.4 In the Federalist Papers, James Madison noted that the six-year Senate term was consistent with state senate terms.5

Commentators have viewed the six-year Senate term and two-year House term as striking a careful balance between institutional stability provided by a longer Senate term and legislative responsiveness provided by shorter House terms punctuated by frequent elections. Explaining the Senate’s greater permanence as moderating more volatile short-term House interests, Justice Joseph Story stated in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: “[The Senate’s] value would be incalculably increased by making its term in office such, that with moderate industry, talents, and devotion to the public service, its members could scarcely fail of having the reasonable information, which would guard them against gross errors, and the reasonable firmness, which would enable them to resist visionary speculations, and popular excitement.” 6

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 707 & n.1 (1833). back
Id. back
Max Farrand, The Framing of the Constitution 76 (1913). back
Id. at 91. The Federalist Papers discuss state practices with respect to their “most numerous branches,” stating: “In Connecticut and Rhode Island, the periods are half-yearly. In the other States, South Carolina excepted, they are annual. In South Carolina they are biennial as is proposed in the federal government.” The Federalist No. 53 (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison). back
The Federalist No. 39 (James Madison) ( “The Senate is elective, for the period of six years; which is but one year more than the period of the Senate of Maryland, and but two more than that of the Senates of New York and Virginia.” ). back
Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States § 712 (1833). Justice Story continued: “If public men know, that they may safely wait for the gradual action of a sound public opinion, to decide upon the merit of their actions and measures, before they can be struck down, they will be more ready to assume responsibility, and pretermit present popularity for future solid reputation.” Id. back