…the whole idea is so whiz-bang obvious in its absurdity…
We’re in a hell of a fix here in America. The Congress is dysfunctional and stymied by partisanship. Its members are at each others’ throats; there is no political dialogue; rants and threats have supplanted discourse and compromise. What to do? Have we no one with imagination and vision? Who will save us?
What we need is the Big Idea — something that cuts through all reasonable opposition and carries the day with its simplicity and elegance. And guess what? Like all Big Ideas, it was obvious all along:
We need a bigger House of Representatives.
Much bigger, actually — say, 5,000 representatives instead of the current 435. That’s the solution offered on the New York Times Op-Ed page by Dalton Conley, professor of sociology, medicine and public policy at New York University and Jacqueline Stevens, professor of political science at Northwestern.
According to the professors:
“The average House member speaks for about 700,000 Americans. In contrast, in 1913 he represented roughly 200,000, a ratio that today would mean a House with 1,500 members — or 5,000 if we match the ratio the founders awarded themselves.”
Wow. Five thousand congress-folks. Kind of leaves you breathless, doesn’t it? We ourselves are overwhelmed with curiosity about some of the logistics:
- Where will they meet? RFK Stadium?
- Do they still all get sworn in one at a time? That could take months.
- Can we afford this? It sounds really, really expensive.
- How many new airports will D.C. need?
Well, we are reassured. We had always thought that if you want a truly loony idea, the best place to find it is always academia, and this one confirms our belief with a proof of geometric rigor.
But the professors have their arguments:
“This disparity increases the influence of lobbyists and special interests: the more constituents one has, the easier it is for money to outshine individual voices. And it means that representatives have a harder time connecting with the people back in their districts.”
What’s needed, then, is a significant increase in the size of the House by expanding the number, and shrinking the size, of districts. Doing so would make campaigns cheaper, the political value of donations lower and the importance of local mobilizing much greater.
And as arguments go, these are remarkably gaseous in their substance, and the second paragraph entertains a degree of hopey-changey more suited to sorority sophomores than serious social scientists. (Did I really say that? “Serious social scientists”? Oh, dear. )
Individual campaigns, for example, may well be cheaper, but there will be twelve times as many of them. Need we point out how much easier it would be for wealthy candidates to buy elections if the price tag drops by 90%? Hardly conducive to democracy, is it?
But herein we find perhaps the impetus for the professors’ proposal:
“Smaller districts would also end the two-party deadlock. Orange County, Calif., might elect a Libertarian, while Cambridge, Mass., might pick a candidate from the Green Party.”
Frankly, we doubt it. Why wouldn’t Orange County elect a golf pro? And as for Cambridge — well, we spent quite a bit of time there once, and the color of the candidate is more likely to be tie-dyed than green, and red is not completely out of the question.
There are interesting international implications as well. Shall the House of Commons and the Bundestag entertain similar notions? We suspect not. They, after all, have the benefit of already having witnessed at close quarters the realization of the professors’ fantasy. It’s called “Italy.”
The Italians have so many parties that no one can keep an accurate count, what with the political landscape changing with the fluidity of frames in a motion picture. There is no interest small enough to escape representation, with a predictable result: the inability of the legislature to enact useful law has concentrated an astonishing amount of power in the executive branch. This is hardly a useful model for the United States, unless one happens to enjoy the notion of a Philosopher-King, who, disdainful of law or constitutional constraint, does exactly what he pleases to “move the country forward” and “win the future.”
In fact, the whole idea is so whiz-bang obvious in its absurdity that we suspected for a while that the editorial was a tongue-in-cheek Swiftian satire meant to point out the downside of Constitutional rigidity. “You want to make the Constitution the chief arbiter of what is permissible? Well, look then – that means we should have 5,000 congress-mongers.”
But the writers are clearly sincere in their proposal. So we’re back to first impressions: “You guys can have your ivory tower, but you have too stay in the rubber room.” But we need fear not. The whole idea has died stillborn.
To impractical? No. Too extreme? No. None of the obvious objections doom the proposal from the start, as we have ample historical precedent for the legislation of harebrained schemes.
But imagine this scene:
“Congressman, we would like your support for a bill that would reduce your budget and the size of your constituency by 90 percent.”
Right. Who decides how big Congress should be? Congress. One of our public servants voluntarily accepting a downsizing of this magnitude has the same order of probability as Glen Beck french-kissing Nancy Pelosi, and then posting the video on the internet.
Still, the idea is not without its merits. Paradoxically, one the best ways to fight big government is to make it so big that it can’t actually do anything at all. Five thousand congresspeople? Could they ever pass anything? How long would debates last? We have a feeling terms would expire before some of them even got to make a speech. In fact, the possibilities for complete paralysis begin to make us wonder:
Maybe the professors’ idea is not so screwy after all.