• Michael Thompson

Congress Is Incompetent, So Let’s Hire Twice as Many

That is not a typo, and if it is not a typo then you must feel I’m a little crazy?

Nope, and I know it seems counter-intuitive to want to significantly increase the part of Government most Americans believe is irrevocably broken. The branch most Americans claim is rife with incompetence. It is so bad that recently polling reveals a Congressional approval rating of under 20%. Still, this is exactly what I am proposing, at least to one-half of Congress, the House of Representatives.

Picture of U.S. Capitol Building
Picture of U.S. Capitol Building by Architect of Capitol

This is not the first time I have complained about representation for the House, nor is it the first time I have discussed its origins. When the U.S. Constitution was being written, the legislative body was divided into two separate bodies. The upper chamber became the Senate. Each state in the union was granted two Senators thus ensuring lesser populated states would not be dominated by their larger neighbors. The lower chamber was organized into the House of Representatives and was designed with proportional representation. This bicameral agreement was known as The Great Compromise during the debating and ratification process of the U.S. Constitution.

For the first 150-years of the country’s history, the system worked as originally intended. Apportionment was based on the decennial Census as mandated by the United States Constitution. The number of House members increased as did the country’s population. In 1793, 105-members represented about 34,436 constituents. Even then some of the Founding Fathers considered this number excessive. During the Constitutional Convention, George Washington thought a 1:40,000 ratio was too high and argued for a more reasonable 1:30,000 ratio. Notably, the debate over this ratio was the only issue Washington took up during the Philadelphia meetings in 1787.

James Madison, Father of the Constitution, also believed that the ratio number needed to be smaller. In his publication, Federalist No. 55, he asserted that the elected officials would better understand the needs of the community they represented and would not think themselves superior to the voters. Think how often the phrase – “These Washington elites are out of touch!” – been spoken over the last 50 years?

“... first, that so small a number of representatives will be an unsafe depositary of the public interests; secondly, that they will not possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents; thirdly, that they will be taken from that class of citizens which will sympathize least with the feelings of the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at a permanent elevation of the few on the depression of the many; ...” – James Madison, Federalist 55.

Over the years, as America’s population increased so did the ratio enlarge. The rise in population density and communication allowed for this change in the apportionment ratio without a loss of local familiarity within a district. In 1920, the proportion became 1:243,728, significantly larger than 1790, but not out-of-step in a country that could communicate instantly by the newly discovered telephone and radio. Mass communication was in its infancy and a House member would still value local concerns. However, in the aftermath of World War I, Congress seemingly got lazy and decided to consolidate power.

The political parties, afraid of losing power, fought reapportionment after the 1920 Census. The result was the Reapportionment Act of 1929, and the fixing of the number of House seats at 435 from 1930 onwards. The pretense, by Congress, was that they no longer had space at the Capitol building for additional delegates to preside. Whatever the initial motivation, the result was the slow degradation of a once-proud institution over the next 90+ years. House members became significantly more powerful, and thus, they became increasingly indifferent to the communities they represented. The national political party took center-stage and priority. National issues became more important to a Congressional delegate than local issues. Political gerrymandering, always a problem, became common-place and significantly easier. District lines are now decided by computers and algorithms instead of common sense and have resulted in the dilution of minority representation. By 2010, the House member to constituent ratio ballooned to a whopping 1:709,760. As far as country’s with bicameral legislatures, the United States has one of the worst ratios and is very undemocratic.

Now, I am not saying we need to go back to a 1:30,000 ratio, however, with today’s technology – cell phones, internet, satellites, and television – we can easily settle on a proportion in the neighborhood of 1:500,000. Based on a 2020 estimated population of 331 million citizens that would create a lower chamber with 662-seats, round up to 663-sets if one insists upon an odd integer.

That is an increase of 227 members who will bring 227 new and diverse ideas. Once again, Representatives will take interest in local issues, while helping to break the power of the national parties. The chance that 3rd-parties, Independents, and fringe candidates of being elected would raise considerably. Finally, the lower branch would be returned to the people.

Some would argue that physical space is still an issue in the Capitol building. Well, if they can not expand the Capitol then simply build another building. It is not difficult. The advent of closed-circuit television and the invention of the internet solves this rather succinctly. Working remotely is no longer taboo. There should be no complaints as the elected should simply be proud to represent their community. They chose this civic duty. Do you want a Congressperson whose gripe is the building from which they work? Does your office have a gym, food court, chapel, etc.?

This plan and observation are far from unique. A quick Google search brings up any number of articles in a similar discussion vein – the New York Times, the Atlantic, Vox, Time Magazine, and the Washington Monthly are all on the first page of searching. So why is it that it is seldom discussed publicly with any seriousness?

I think the answer is two-fold. Everyone has a different plan and thus there is no consistent idea to rally behind. I like 663-seats, another writer thinks 750, and a third writer says 990. Who does the public support, and what mechanism for change should they embrace? Do we pass James Madison’s originally introduced Apportionment Amendment that was first proposed in the Bill of Rights, or do we develop a more modern allocation system?

The other roadblock is no political will, from either Republicans and Democrats, to tamper with the current power structure. There is simply a lack of incentive to dilute their power and make government less partisan. If brought to their attention, the powers in Washington jump to the counter-intuitive argument which claims more members will only equal more confusion and gridlock. I would argue that is an impossibility.

So, how do we fix it?

I think we should begin by not dismissing this as a serious issue. There are a great many intelligent people who know this is a real problem and have been developing solutions. Also, let us not suppose that Congress is irrevocably broken. It is our country, and we can fix it. Third, we need to rally behind one solid, well-designed plan. Many have contemplated this very problem, the vast majority, more intelligent than I. Fourth, we contact our Representatives and Senators as it will take an act of Congress. Then, we write to them incessantly. Finally, we discuss the issue with our friends and family to bring the needed attention. It is time for Congress to work for us once again.

Further Exploration

Vox article that shows the United States has by far the worst ratio of 'member to population' representation in a lower chamber.

NY Times has a much more detailed article.

Find your Congressional Representatives.

Here, from the University of Michigan, is an apportionment calculator. It takes the population numbers and potential House sizes and predicts apportionment numbers based on the most recent method.

James Madison's Federalist No. 55 details apportionment size and why the smaller ratio is better.

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