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Representative Democracy ?

First of three parts on the United States Congress

What makes the United States unique and in fact "exceptional" is that people of diverse ethnicity and cultures live and thrive together not because of our shared ethnicity and culture but rather because of our form of government which is designed to allow equal representation and justice to diverse peoples. This system is not perfect because people are not perfect but by any metric it has worked better than any other form of government in history.

One of the reason that it has worked so well is that regardless of your background or culture you have a voice in your government. Again this has not worked perfectly but as a historical fact it has worked quite well and better than any other system yet devised. The very design of our government virtually insures that where injustices are done that ultimately, if sometimes far too slowly, the system will self correct to fix these injustices. Those who would deny this deny the historical record not only of this nation but fail to recognize the historical precedent of the history of the world, past and present.

All this being said there are serious problems with our current form of represenative government as it is currently practiced in the United States. There are obviously several reforms that need to be made to improve the existing system but I wish to focus on one that should be a simple one but will in all probabilities never happen because it it has to do with simple math and the modern day political class seems to be fundamentally incapable of seeing "simple".

Common sense would seem to indicate that if you elect people to represent you as a form of government at any level, the more people that person represents the less representative that person truly is.

For example if you have a town council consisting of twenty members and each member is elected by a thousand residents, that council member is far more likely to be more representative of and in closer contact with his constituents than a town council of five elected by four thousand residents.

A basic tenet of representative forms of government is that the citizens are in charge, that the people they elect will in fact represent their constituents needs and desires within the constraints of the establishing constitutional parameters. 

The more constituents that a representative represents the less likely it is that he will be able to carry out this basic function. Not only because it will be increasingly more difficult to interact with his constituents but also because simple mathematics will insure that the representative will be representing an ever more diverse constituency.

Most people are probably aware, or should be, that George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention which came up with our United States Constitution which  replaced the ineffective Articles of Confederation. During the convention Washington never offered an opinion on any of the proceedings or suggestions....except one.

When the House of Representatives was being discussed (The Peoples House) there was considerable debate about how many citizens each member of the House should represent. The discussion generally ranged in the neighborhood of between thirty and forty thousand and they eventually settled on thirty thousand. George Washington, along with others, felt this was far too many people for a Representative to properly represent but this was the number that was settled upon.

Though everyone is aware of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution which we call our Bill of Rights, passed  by the first congress and ratified by the existing states of the time, there were actually twelve amendments passed by Congress but two were not ratified by the states. Actually this is not strictly true, the twelfth of these Amendments was eventually ratified in 1992 and became the Twenty Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
In other words representatives could not vote themselves a raise in their current term. It only took two centuries to get around to that little bit of house cleaning (pun intended). The other amendment of those first twelve which has never been ratified yet was passed by that first congress was called Article the First or the Congressional Apportionment Amendment.
Article the first... After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

This Amendment was ratified by eleven states as of 1792, just shy of the number needed for it to be added to the Constitution at the time. Remember we were adding states so it was not just the original thirteen that were figured into the equation. After that, for whatever reason, Article the First, just sort of got lost in the growth and growing pains of our new nation. So no real mechanism for determining the size of the House of Representatives was ever put into the Constitution itself.

 The constitution itself sets the minimum proportion at one Representative for every thirty thousand  citizens. The Apportionment Act of 1911, also known as Public Law 62-5,  set the maximum limit at 433 Representatives but allowed for two more since Arizona and New Mexico were about to become states.  This is how we now have the fixed number of 435 which we have had since 1911, except when new states are admitted then reapportioned back to 435 after the next census. So 435 is the limit but why?

Currently each member of Congress represents around 700,000 people and sometime before the end of this century, if this limit remains the same, it will be one Representative for every million people. Does anyone really believe that these numbers truly represent a "Representative Democracy"?

Although it is true that modern day communications and transportation allows a Representative easier access to his constituents, the fact remains that with this large of a constituency a Representative is far more isolated from his "employers" than is healthy for effective self governance.

It could be argued that the United States has the least representative democracy of all western democracies.

 As examples, the United Kingdom has a population of just over sixty two million yet their House of Commons has 620 members. Their ratio is one Member for every 100,352 citizens, one seventh the proportion of the United States. Granted their nation is smaller but that does not change the fact that they still have almost two hundred more representatives than we do with only one fifth of our population! Canada which has an even smaller population than the UK is even more striking considering the matching physical size of the countries. As the result of their recent 2011 census they are adding 27 more seats to their House of Commons bringing it to 308 members representing a population of 31,612,897 or one Member for every 102,637 citizens.

Are we saying that we can not accommodation a larger House of Representatives to represent a far larger and far more diverse nation? Why?

The answer of course has to do with both political power and a lack of political leadership. Rather than looking to fix what is relatively easy , politicians take the course of least resistance and if that path will insure greater power for themselves so much the better.

I will discuss this further in part two.


1 comment:

  1. The answer to the question, "Why was the House limited to 435 members?" is fairly obvious and simple. The congresscritters didn't want their power and importance diluted any more than it already had been by population increases.