Let’s Expand Congress

The New York Times has an opinion piece up today that our friend hbinkley pointed out. It calls for the expansion of the US House of Representatives.

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.

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.

Moreover, 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.

More districts would likewise mean more precision in distributing them equitably, especially in low-population states. Today the lone Wyoming representative covers about 500,000 people, while her lone counterpart in Delaware reports to 900,000.

The increase would also mean more elected officials working on the country’s business, reducing the reliance on unaccountable staffers. Most of the House’s work is through committees, overseeing and checking government agencies.

With more people in Congress, House committee members could see to this critical business themselves – and therefore be more influential, since a phone call from an actual member is a lot more effective than a request from the committee staff.  – Dalton Conley

Mr. Conley makes and excellent and correct argument. But I believe that expanding the House of Representatives does not go far enough. I believe we also need to expand the Senate.

My proposal would be to add 34 more Senators, one each for the the 34 most populous states. This would preserve the even number of Senators, allowing the Vice President to continue casting a tie-breaking vote. More significantly, since it requires two-thirds of states to ratify a constitutional amendment, giving thirty-four states one more Senator increases the likelihood of getting that two-thirds (since two-thirds of 50 is 33). Adding this many would also create a bipartisan mix of new Senators, since the mix of states in the top 34 include such diverse politics as Alabama (23) and Connecticut (22).

The additional Senators would be allocated after each census to the top 34 states. That Senator would be elected during the two year cycle when that state did not elect one of their other Senators. Those states would then not only elect Representatives every other year, but also a statewide Senator during every Congressional cycle. That is likely to increase turnout during otherwise low-participation elections, a goal all members of our political process share.  Interestingly, support for such a change may have bipartisan support among activists. My friend Ed, who I have been close with since we were both first-years at UVA, is a strong Republican. He was a long-time volunteer for Eric Cantor. When last we hung out on my deck drinking our friend Pete’s homebrew and arguing politics, reforming the Congress in such a manner was just about the only thing we could come to agreement upon. We both agreed that Congress was no longer representative in the manner which the Framers intended, and Congressional expansion was the way to fix it.

For Virginia, such a proposal would create a series of new Congressional districts as well as add a Senator to our delegation (We’re population rank 12). Every Federal election would have a Senator (or Senate candidate) on the ballot leading the ticket for each party, which serves as a unifying force and ensure a statewide focus for each election.

It is my humble suggestion that Virginia, as the source of the original plan for Congressional representation in the Constitution draft an Amendment and put it forward for debate among our sister states. The time has come to address the terrible inequality that our current allocation of Congressional representation forces upon the voters of America.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Expand Congress

  1. stevensrmiller

    Speaking as someone who represents 72,000 people on an elected body where I get to cast the same number of votes as the member who represents 23,000 people (which is to say, we both get one vote), I’d be willing to consider having each member of the House (and the BOS) get to cast as many votes as they have constituents. I’d get 72,000 votes, and Eugene would get 23,000 votes. Of course, Scott would get 290,000 votes, so we might want to say he gets the total divided by the number of districts, or something…

    The other system that no one ever takes seriously in American-style democracy is proportional representation. The way that works is each party lists the candidates it wants in a body, by order of preference. Then each party gets to “elect” to the body the number of candidates off its list that matches the percentage of votes that party got. So, if the Republicans get 50% of the vote, the Dems get 30%, the Greens get 15% and the Libertarians get 5%, and the body has 435 members, then the number of members by party that each would get to “elect” to the body would be as follows:

    Republicans, 217 (well, round down in favor of minority rights, eh?)

    Dems, 130

    Greens, 65

    Libertarians, 22 (or 23, if we let the “losers” get the accumulated round-downs from everybody else)

    This system guarantees that even parties with small, but detectable, support in the electorate have some voice in the bodies they elect. You don’t get to know for sure who will represent you, but you know who gets the job first, second, third, and so on.

    But, we kind of like winner-takes-all here, so I suspect we’ll never see it tried. Also, when the Republicans can rule the Senate with a 41-member majority, it would seem that even proportional representation guarantees little in the way of a meaningful vote at all. Still just comes down to the same thing it always has: who has the most control.

  2. Liz Miller

    Should be set by the number of residents in the least populous state, since that state automatically gets a Representative.

    Each other state should get the number of Representatives that would derive from (population of state)/(population of least populous state), rounded to the nearest whole number.

    And the stupid cap on the total number of Representatives should be eliminated.

    And Washington DC should totally get a voting Representative.

    Using my math, that would raise the number of representatives to between 540 and 555 (depending on rounding).

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