Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Making the House of Representatives Representative Again

For years I have stewed about the declining value of an individual vote when it comes to electing and influencing the behavior of our congressional representatives. It simply made no sense to me that we have capped the number of representatives.

This has wildly increased district populations, meaning that each citizen’s voice has less clout with her/his representative. We have ended up with two congressional chambers of elitists rather than having one chamber that is closer to the people. We effectively have two senates.

On the last day of the 1787 constitutional convention, after the document had been finalized and prepared for signing, Nathaniel Gorham proposed that Article I Section 2 be altered. It had read that the minimum population for a congressional district would be 40,000, but Gorham wanted that number reduced to 30,000.

George Washington, though he had presided at the convention, had refrained from speaking out on issues involving the House of Representatives. But he broke his silence on this point and spoke in favor of the reduction because it would increase the number of representatives. He felt that this would help secure “the rights & interests of the people” (see here). The proposal was approved. The ‘fo’ in forty was erased and replaced with ‘thi’ to change the word to thirty.

Since then, the number of representatives increased as the population of the U.S. increased. But in 1911, Congress voted to cap the number of representatives at 435. Congressional districts that once averaged 40,000 citizens in population now average over 700,000 citizens.

The idea that representatives can represent 700,000 people today as effectively as they once represented 40,000 is preposterous, despite our communication technology. The candidates most likely to win are the ones that avoid principled stands and legislate in nondescript ways.

Moreover, the cost of running a campaign to appeal to 700,000 is far higher than the cost of campaigning to appeal to 40,000. Unless one is rich, today’s congressional campaigns require taking lots of money from special interest groups that expect something in return. This severely limits those that can run for office.

If congressional districts today had populations of about 50,000, we’d have about 6,000 members of the House of Representatives. Yes, this would mean more politicians, but it would also mean better representation. You’d see a more nuanced viewpoints. You’d see a decline in the power of the two major parties — of their leadership in the House. Instead of marshaling lieutenants, it would be more like herding cats.

The arguments against returning the House to a truly representative body have been anticipated by J.E. Quidam, who runs an organization called Quidam addresses (here) 15 common questions/issues people have with this proposal. Concerned about having too many politicians, the increased cost, or inability to accomplish anything? Quidam addresses those concerns and others.

The power of lobbyists, big business, and special interest groups would be vastly diminished and diluted. It would be far more difficult to schmooze 6,000 reps than it is to schmooze 435. Legislation would necessarily require a much broader appeal than it does today. Bills would be more readable. Congressional staffs would get smaller. This would not solve all of our country’s problems, but it would certainly get us closer to the principles of freedom envisioned by our Founders.

I frankly have become very disillusioned about politics during this election cycle. My son has been watching the presidential debate tonight. I watched part of it, but I finally had to walk out. It blows my mind to think that one of these fools is about to be the next president of our country. Of course, in retrospect, the last several general elections haven’t offered a much better choice.

If I had my druthers, I’d opt for divided government. Having both houses of Congress plus the executive branch controlled by a single party doesn’t seem to have served us as well as has divided government over the past century or so. Not under FDR. Not under LBJ. And not under GWB.

But I’m also disillusioned about Congress. In fact, one of the reasons I have problems with just about any federal level politician is that I have problems with what the system has become. While I have been concerned about an elitist House of Representatives for many years, I didn’t know until today that there are other people out there that are likewise concerned and that have a plan to do something about it.

I simply can’t get enthused about any candidate at just about any level this election. But this is a cause I can support. Quidam notes that achieving the goal of small congressional districts is improbable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get the ball rolling.

Boyd K. Packer recently talked about how members of the LDS Church could be so patriotic in 1849 after years of being repeatedly driven from their homes while the government refused to fulfill its obligation to protect its citizens. It was not the government that had failed them that they adored. Rather, it was the principles of freedom and justice upon which this country was founded — the ideals to which we aspire — that was the object of their patriotism.

While I cannot generate enthusiasm for any politician right now, I can generate enthusiasm for a course correction that would bring us closer to the principles upon which our nation was founded.


Anonymous said...

Wow. This is the best idea I have heard to repair our broken system. I had not considered the implications of how large our congressional districts had become. It would also solve the little disparities such as the fact that California has over 18 times as many representatives in the House as Utah but under 14 times our population (and they say small states are over-represented).

Chris said...

I've been disgusted with the debates lately and with politics in general this election cycle. I think one of the main reasons for my frustration is the feeling that I'm powerless to do anything to affect the current course our government is taking. Even if I get out there and do some legwork myself to share my opinion, it doesn't feel like it will matter one bit.

I like this idea of making the H of R more representative. It feels like an individual voter has absolutely no say in what government does these days. As you point out, to even campaign for a federal office, one has to come up with lots of cash which can only come from special interest groups. Can such a change be pulled off? Maybe, but it will take a massive amount of effort to alter the current momentum of things.

Unknown said...

I LOVED Pres. Packer's talk, too! It answered a LOT of questions in my mind...

Maybe having thousands of reps really would make a difference - thanks for the write-up!