HomeStuff2017 . 01“To Reform Congress, Enlarge It” - Sketchbook

“To Reform Congress, Enlarge It”

American Politics

I don’t have a specific position on this. I remember saying a few years ago that the executive branch might have reached a kind of critical mass where effective congressional oversight was no longer possible, that Congress either already had or was about to obsolete itself by passing too many structurally massive bills ending with “etc. etc.” I still believe that, but it’s only an idea close-by. I’m thinking of Congress unwisely ceding power, and that isn’t a problem solved by a larger congress.

Along the same lines, though, and closer to directly supporting the idea of expanding the size of Congress, is an argument of scale that Goldberg doesn’t get around to making in his arguments (I present his arguments below). He’s thinking of the ever-growing American population, and the corresponding ever-worsening underrepresentation it causes. But coming from thoughts of oversight: it isn’t just the American population that’s grown, but the bureaucracy. We grumble about “the federal government” and almost always mean the federal agencies and the executive branch. Like the expansion of the American population, the expansion of “the federal government” has been massive, and at some point in time, the thought that Congress should be able to provide effective oversight of the executive will become ridiculous — with or without laws ending in “etc. etc.”

Be all that as it may. Here follows a few highlights from Jonah Goldberg’s arguments over the years. Always my highlight pen.

Time-traveling to 2001: “George Will Called Me An Idiot”:

During and after the constitutional convention, one of the most contentious issues was how to calculate the proper number of representatives for our new democracy. Indeed, George Washington only interrupted the Constitutional Convention once on a substantive point: to express his concern that the proposed number of constituents-per-congressman ratio was too high.

The chief complaints were summed up by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. Such Dom DeLuise-sized districts, argued Madison, would not “possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents.” Worse, as the population grew, Congress would “be more and more disproportionate, by the increase of the people and the obstacles which will prevent a correspondent increase of the representatives.”

So how big were these massive districts? A stunning 30,000 Americans for every representative. In fact, the original plan was for 40,000 voters per seat, but George Washington implored the Constitutional Convention not to make districts so huge that House members would never be able to represent their constituents fairly.

Well, my original argument was based on 1990 decenial census data. But the new census data makes the case even better. Guess how many people the average congressman represents today? More than 600,000.

Madison defended the relatively small number of representatives by pointing out that the size of the House would keep growing with the population. No doubt he couldn’t have anticipated that the United States would reach almost 300 million people by the end of 20th century or that Congress would freeze permanently its size at 435 seats in 1911 (except for two years when we added Alaska and Hawaii, for a total of 437).

But Madison did concede, in Federalist 55, that if Congress were to remain as small as it was in the 18th century for very long it could be an invitation to tyranny and corruption. Well, statistically speaking, the House of Representatives is much, much smaller today.

If 1790 standards were applied, we would have no fewer than 9,300 representatives. Mr. Will wants to boost things to a mere 1,000 representatives, which would put us at the 1930 ratio. And remember: Madison’s standards — and the 30,000 number — were attacked by some as elitist and potentially tyrannical. So, why can’t we have a more representative democracy?

He mentions George Will's article. It’s here. Along with an argument similar to Goldberg’s, Will brings up culture:

Candidates could campaign as candidates did in the pre-broadcasting era, with more retail than wholesale politicking, door to door, meeting by meeting. Hence there would be less need for money, most of which now buys television time. So enlarging the House can be justified in terms of the goal that nowadays trumps all others among “progressive” thinkers — campaign finance reform.

From there, Will explores a tangent on John McCain — but it’s interesting to imagine a less-elitist House of Representatives. A significantly larger membership is by definition less elite. The public perception would change, and the respective culture on Capital Hill would change.

Closing with Goldberg and leaping to 2009: “We Need a Bigger House”:

Critics of the status quo from the left and right yearn to shatter the two-party system’s lock on politics. I’m not convinced that would be a good thing, but wouldn’t the best way to do that be for smaller parties in Congress to champion fresh new ideas? Rather than have some billionaire egomaniac who, in effect, creates or co-opts a ridiculous third party just so he can indulge his presidential ambitions, why not have third, fourth, or 15th parties test their wares in a smaller political market and build themselves up to where they could field a president?

Obviously, the rajahs of incumbentstan don’t like the prospect of diluting their own power. But expanding Congress would, among other things, make late-night C-SPAN so much more entertaining.



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