Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A few more Congressmen

The basis for apportionment of members of the House of Representatives following the 1910 census was approximately one congressman for every 212,000 people (Corwin, The Constitution and What it Means Today, 1978, p. 11). If we had one member of the House for every 212 K heartbeats today, do you know how many congressmen that would be? It would be one thousand, four hundred, forty-one representatives--in other words, greater than a thousand more congressmen than we actually have.

No, I don't think it's a good idea to have 1,441 people in the House of Representatives. But you know, I think it is certainly arguable that the 435 seats we've got there are too few. This occurs to me every time I see an article like this one in which experts are quoted predicting that as a result of the 2010 census, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and other eastern and Midwestern states will lose a seat or two while Florida, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and my Georgia will pick up the seats lost up north.

Is there anything magical about the number 435? No--but what is somewhat remarkable is that we've had that number of congressional seats for ninety years now. It was on June 18, 1929 that Congress passed a law fixing the House at 435 members (Corwin, p. 11). The important point to remember is that this was a simple legislative act, not something mandated in the Constitution.
Thus it can be changed--and if I were advising President-elect Obama, I'd suggest that he recommend to Congress they expand the House. He's always talking about making government more transparent and accountable to the people; I think decreasing the ratio of congressmen to inhabitants would help accomplish this.

Look at it this way: as we've seen, a hundred years ago there was a representative for every 212,000 Americans. The basis today is one representative for every 702,250 Americans. So the ratio has more than tripled.

Or check out Article 1, Section 2, requiring that "the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand." You think a few of the men who signed the Constitution might be a bit stunned at a number of representatives that doesn't exceed twenty-three times thirty thousand?

No, I'm not going to make the other argument that sometimes gets made in favor of expanding the House, namely, we should do it because our House of Representatives is smaller than corresponding bodies in other democracies. The House of Commons in the United Kingdom, this line of reasoning goes, has over two hundred more seats than our House of Representatives, and the U.K. has a lot fewer people than the U.S., so our number of seats should increase.

The problem with this thinking is that the U.S. is quite dissimilar from the U.K. and most other democracies in that we have sub-units of government--the states--with a lot of autonomy, and so we're all represented in government by both state and national figures. Maybe Montana should have more than one Congressman, but even in our era of expanded federal government the assembly in Helena takes care of a lot of the needs of the citizens. (Montana has 50 state senators and 100 state representatives.)

But just because I find the comparison to the Parliament argument unsound, I agree with its conclusion, that the bloated ratio of representatives to represented deserves attention.

Now at this point, if I was an MIT grad I'd offer some complex logarithm to determine exactly how many Congressmen we should have. Well never mind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I probably couldn't even get into the Virginia Institute of Technology, and they admitted Michael Vick. I don't have any complicated formulas to share.

But I didn't want to just write something arbitrary like "We need about another two dozen seats," I needed to come up with something tangible, no matter how simplistic. So let's look at it this way. First, it's fine to speak of number of representatives per such and such a number of people, but each member of Congress serves those living in a particular state. It's no matter that the Chicago metropolitan area extends into Indiana, they can't make a congressional district that includes Gary and parts of Chicago's south side. Furthermore, each state must have at least one representative, so even if there is one seat in Congress for every 700 thousand folks, Wyoming still has to have one for its 523 thousand people.

Now let's go back to nearly ninety years ago when the number of seats was set at 435. At that time there were only forty-eight states. If you divide 435 by 48, you get 9.06, meaning the average state in 1930 would have nine representatives. But in 1959, we added two states, so now the average state has only 8.07 congressmen.

Well what if instead of debating ratios of seats to citizens, we simply took the pre-1959 ratio of seats to states as our guide? Multiplying 9.06 times 48 gets you 434.88 seats, which is what we've got now considering you can't have 0.88 of a congressman (literally, I suppose figuratively many Congressmen aren't quite all there). But if you multiply 9.06 times 50, you get 453--a whole number, even!

So that's my proposal. Increase the House of Representatives by eighteen seats to 453. Oh, and if you're worried that apportionment will put all eighteen of them in Texas and Florida, Congress could help out a bit by saying that every state with over seven hundred thousand people gets at least two seats in Congress. That would reduce the number of states currently having just one congressional seat from seven to four--congratulations Montana, Delaware, and South Dakota, you each pick up an extra congressman. Please select carefully; we've got enough corrupt ones.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

Note that although the House of Commons has 646 members, the benches in the House of Commons Chamber (which, in its present form, dates to only 1864) can only physically 427 of them at most, leaving the rest standing. It's far more common for all, or nearly all, Congressmen to show up than it is for MPs.