Yes, we need a bigger House

Census officials announced this morning that New York state will lose two seats in Congress, likely before the 2012 elections.

In the weeks before this announcement, I decided to take a trip, driving from my home in the Adirondack village of Saranac Lake across the breadth of New York's 20th district, where I live.
I motored down the Champlain Valley, then along the Hudson River, to the outskirts of Poughkeepsie, journey of roughly 230 miles.

On the drive, which took more than four hours,  I saw a vast array of communities, with very different identities, needs, goals, political values, and aspirations.

Put bluntly, the southern end of the 20th district has absolutely zero connection to the northern end.  The idea of having one politician represent the entire expanse is ludicrous.

Similar problems exist across the United States.  In Alaska, where I grew up, Rep. Don Young is expected to represent a sprawling and diverse (but sparsely populated) territory the size of a small continent.

This runs contrary to the express wishes of the Founding Fathers, who intended the House of Representatives to be our most, well, representative branch of government.

Congressmen (and, later, congresswomen) were supposed to know their communities and their constituents intimately.  They were meant to be people you saw around town, in church, and at the market.

For that reason, when the Framers wrote the Constitution, they limited the number of House members to one for ever 30,000 members of the public.

Think about that:  Under the original language laid out by the Founding Fathers, we would currently have a House of Representatives with more than 10,000 voting members.

That's way more politicians than we need.

But it's also clear that our current system, which allows for a maximum of 435 sitting House members, is increasingly unworkable and even anti-democratic.

Beginning in 2012, each Representative will represent roughly 710,000 people.  That is wildly out of sync with the original design and purpose of the House.

So how did we end up with that arbitrary 435-member limit?

It turns out, the rule is based upon a simple law (called Public Law 62-5) that was passed by Congress in 1911.  At that time, each House member represented only around 200,000 citizens.

So what if we returned to that ratio, which existed a century ago?   We would have a House of Representatives with roughly 1,500 members — hefty, but still workable.

Arguably, it would be a more chaotic institution, with more parties and factions.  Many House members would represent regional, ethnic, or parochial interests.  These would likely form coalitions.

Rather than two big-tent parties, we would probably see a more complicated scrum of "tea parties," "moveon.orgers," "Palinites," "Greens," and so on.  That would all get messy at times, to be sure.

But individual Representatives would also be far more rooted in their communities.  Gerrymandering would be less of a problem.

Campaigns would be less expensive, more grassroots affairs, reducing the role of money in our elections.

The role of TV and radio advertisements would be downplayed, while public debates and human canvassing would move back to the center of our politics.

Yes, at first, a three-fold increase in the number of Congress-members would seem disorienting.  (Where would they all sit?)  But we've seen the body grow dramatically before.

Our current House has eight times more members than sat for the very first Congress in New York City's Federal Hall in 1789.

The simple truth is that as the nation's population grows, we will have to grow the House as well.  Otherwise, "our" man or woman in Washington will soon wind up representing a million citizens, and more.

Their districts will continue to swell until it will be logistically and practically impossible for them to develop more than a superficial knowledge of the various regions and interests.

That can hardly be what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.

(The body of this blog post first appeared in November.)

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10 Responses to “Yes, we need a bigger House”

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  1. Bret4207 says:

    As I said when you first ran this idea- I don't see the problem. Big deal, so we'd have a lot more Congressmen. A lot more people with a lot less power. They can tele-conference, there's no real need to meet and certainly no need for them to spend most of their time in Washington.

    I'm sure there'll be plenty of opposition to that idea, but I fail to see how sticking to the Constitution is a bad idea.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    During these tough economic times, why not get rid of Congress and save all that money. Just have the Senate. Everyone gets two and we don't need to fool around with redistricting.

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  3. scratchy says:

    Good idea, but were exactly does the money come from?

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  4. TurdSandwich says:

    Great idea and drop their salaies to around 10-15k. That way they have to hold a real job and actual feel the pain of their votes.
    I'm in, where do I sign.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Where are all these extra representatives and their staffers live in Washington?
    My son went to grad school near Washington and interned for a Senator. To find a barely affordable apartment he had to live 45 minutes from the end of the Metro line. There are Representatives who have to live in their offices.

    Then there is the logistical nightmare of finding offices space, equipment, staff…

    With the advent of modern communication systems and transportation citizens can have better access to their congressperson far better now than an average person from our area in 1800 or 1900 or even 1980.

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  6. Anita says:

    While it is possible that there may be more factions in a larger House, such a change could also result in strengthened leadership for both parties. I think that individual Representatives would have less power and influence unless they stick around enough to advance to leadership. What is certain is that the result is unknown, not really predictable, and unlikely to fully fulfill idealistic ideas of the positive effects smaller districts might have. And some of the proposals above, such as dramatically less pay, are likely to make the job even less attractive to potential candidates.

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  7. Phil Brown says:

    If I recall right, Aristotle said the polis (city-state) should be no larger than 90,000. Maybe we should split the country into 3,400 city-states, each with an assembly of ordinary citizens who happen to show up. That's democracy, if you want it.

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  8. Pete Klein says:

    Sounds like fun, Phil
    But if we did that, would it mean we would need a North Adirondack and South Adirondack?

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  9. Phil Brown says:

    I think so, Pete. And we'd probably go to war over Newcomb.

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  10. Bret4207 says:

    If we're gonna have a war in Newcomb, can we have it on steak roast weekend please?

    Knuck- we get them out of Washington. There is ZERO reason for them to be spending the majority of their time in Washington, meeting with lobbyists and getting more a more corrupted each day. They can tele-confrence from their home districts. And when they do actually HAVE to go to Washington they can get put up in barracks at Quantico or Langley. We need to stop treating them like royalty. They're public servants. We expect a lot more from our military, our cops and firemen, our teachers even. Why are we treating the people with the ability to do the most damage like minor gods?

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