Bigger may be better
Solution for improving representation
"The solution” to citizen disenfranchise-ment from congressional representation, Brian Flynn says on his wonderfully irreverent blog (www.angryirishmen.com/journal/), “is relatively simple.” He advocates increasing the number of representatives thereby reducing the number of constituents they would represent.
Dalton Conley, professor of sociology, medicine and public policy at New York University and the author of “Elsewhere, U.S.A” and Jacqueline Stevens, professor of political science at Northwestern and the author of “States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals,” wrote a Jan. 23, 2011, New York Times op-ed piece that Flynn’s position. They stated that “after the 1910 census, when the House grew from 391 members to 433 (two more were added later when Arizona and New Mexico became states), the growth stopped. That’s because the 1920 census indicated that the majority of Americans were concentrating in cities, and nativists worried about of the power of ‘foreigners,’ blocked efforts to give them more representatives.
“By the time the next decade rolled around, members found themselves reluctant to dilute their votes, and the issue was never seriously considered again.
“The result is that Americans today are numerically the worst-represented group of citizens in the country’s history” the authors charged. “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.”
History reveals that America’s founders envisioned population growth and proposed a maximum ratio of 1 per 50,000, which today would produce a Congress of slightly more than 6,000 members.
Even if our founders were off by 100 percent, we could envision a Congress with one member per 100,000 people or 3,000 members. Flynn makes two points of comparison in this regard writing that “a constituency in the U.K. House of Commons is roughly 90,000 people, and the Iraqi government that the U.S. helped establish is at 100,000 people per representative. Yes, that’s right,” Flynn states, “today Iraq’s legislature is seven times more representative than our federal government.”
Of course the idea of 3,000 or more members of Congress would scare people if we continue to apply the 1780s’ approach to governing. Our government needs to evolve to reflect the world we live in. What if members of Congress went to Washington for two-week conventions each quarter? The rest of the time they could live in their districts, using widely adopted communications technologies to collaborate and vote online. Flynn says “It is ridiculous that a member must be ‘present’ to cast a vote in Congress” in this electronic age. Internet technology already provides effective low-cost management solutions, from Google Documents to streaming interactive video to online voting.”
“Moreover,” Conley and Stevens wrote, “with additional House members we’d likely see more citizen-legislators and fewer lifers. In places like New York or Chicago, we would cross at least one congressional district just walking a few blocks to the grocery store. Our representatives would be our neighbors, people who better understood the lives and concerns of average Americans.
Flynn believes “the role of a member of a much larger Congress should be part-time, making it more attractive for people of varying backgrounds to run. Most importantly,” he says, “in most districts it would no longer require millions of dollars to get elected, so members would be less likely to be corrupted.”
Many might argue that such a large number would lead to gridlock based on sheer numbers. C’mon! More gridlock that we have today in Washington? Large numbers of congressional representative could collaborate as effectively as they do in the corporate world. Your favorite big box store Walmart, Amazon.com and other “too big to fail” corporations operate with very few face-to-face meetings.
Most Americans are not ideologues although those are the voices we hear most frequently and most loudly. Most people want government to work efficiently, represent them well, provide some collective services and solve problems.
Conley and Stevens observe that the biggest obstacle to such reform “is Congress itself. Such a change would require the noble act — routine before World War I but unheard of since — of representatives voting to diminish their own relative power.
“So if such reform is to happen, it will have to be driven by grassroots movements.”
Think about it: the one thing Move On and the tea party can agree on is that the Washington status quo needs to change. I wonder if they would agree that the best solution might just be to actually make government BIGGER — at least the House of Representatives.
John Bos is a Shelburne resident. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.