Expanding the House of Representatives
Ideally, many aspects of our society would keep up with the rapid change that it is undergoing. Yet one of the pillars of our republic – the laws that define our relationships with our government and one another – do not seem to keep up with our ever-shifting reality.
Many old laws are no longer enforced and remain on the books merely as humorous examples of the ideologies and circumstances of bygone days. In Massachusetts, for example, it is still technically illegal to be a witch or Quaker, or to use bullets as currency. Other old laws have changed with the times, such as the Bay State’s ban on tattoo parlors that was lifted in 2001, or the “decriminalization” of small quantities of marijuana that was approved by Massachusetts voters in 2008.
Meanwhile, another group of antiquated statutes, generally known as “Blue Laws,” were intended to embed religious morality in our legal code. Limiting when and where alcohol can be sold, or what days it is legal for businesses to be open. These have only recently begun to be overturned in Massachusetts, and are still in full force in many areas of the country.
In addition, there are the controversial laws that seem to be the constant focus of conflict, both rhetorical and otherwise. There are many of these, and it is absolutely proper that we engage in a debate about whether they continue to serve a vital interest or should be changed to reflect the supposed new standards of society. For instance, President Obama recently vowed to change the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the United States military, which will almost certainly require Congress to act to change the law banning gays and lesbians from serving in the Armed Forces.
Despite all this, the “old law” that I believe must be most urgently called into question is the 1929 statute freezing the size of the House of Representatives at only 435 members. My opinion on this issue has changed recently, as it was only about a year ago that I took fellow Collegian Columnist Eli Gottlieb to task for suggesting that Congress might not be large enough to effectively represent the interests of the American people.
Don’t get me wrong, there is little else in Eli’s Oct. 21, 2008 column, entitled “Sorry Mr. Jefferson, America is Changing,” that I agree with, but I have come to see the fundamental wisdom of one of his main arguments. Congress, as it is currently constituted, does not truly represent the will of the people.
Article I of the Constitution specifies the structure of the House of Representatives. There is no limit to the number of people in any given congressional district, and the only requirement is that there be a minimum of at least one Representative for each 30,000 people. However, the Framers’ intent in having a legislative body that grew as the population did was to ensure the proportional representation of the people as a balance against the “several” states’ equalized power in the Senate.
In his Oct. 7 column, “We Need a Bigger House,” Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the National Review, quoted from James Madison’s Federalist Paper #55 that too small a House would be an “unsafe depository of the public interests” and that “districts would be too large and diverse for any politician to ‘possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances.’” He also noted that halting the natural growth of the House in 1929 was “driven in part by a desire to keep immigrants underrepresented.”
The non-partisan organization Thirty-thousand.org remarks that one of the original 12 amendments in the Bill of Rights was intended to limit congressional districts to no more than 50,000 to 60,000 people. Had it been ratified, the House of Representatives would today have more than 5,000 members. Their website goes into great detail about the ins-and-outs of Congressional apportionment, and notes that the average number of people represented by each member of the House is almost 700,000.
Thirty-thousand.org aptly observes that these “super-sized districts” force representatives to spend a huge portion of their time running for reelection, rather than serving the needs of their constituents. In addition, the cost of being elected in a district of 50,000 would be far less than it is in the huge districts of today. This would reduce the corruptive influence of money in our political system.
To my mind, another benefit of lower election costs would be the influx of representatives from outside the upper class, particularly those who would win their seats via the efforts of real grass roots organizations. The House would become a body of citizen legislators as the Framers intended it to be. Finally, as Goldberg suggests, a bigger House would lessen the power of the two major parties, as they would be hard-pressed to prevent the election of candidates representing myriad smaller groups.
Last October, when I wrote my letter of response to Eli’s column, I contended that term limits would be the best way to make the House more representative of the people, but I see now that I was wrong. The best way for “we the people” to get better representation in the House of Representatives is to have more of us in it. Does anyone really think that their interests are as well represented by someone who speaks for 700,000 as one who speaks for 50,000?
Ben Rudnick is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.