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.)