Friday, May 14, 2010

Big House

One of the first multi-post series I ever did on this blog, way back before much of anyone was reading, was on the question of whether a much bigger House of Representatives would be a good thing.  Answer?  It wouldn't!  But it's an interesting question, and people who think unorthodox thoughts often float this one -- and now, we have Bruce Bartlett floating the idea, with Kevin Drum reacting (the previous round, or at least the one I noticed, was set off by Nick Beaudrot, who thought about tripling the size of the House

So, here's what I came up with back in August.  First, elections to a much larger House would help candidates, especially incumbents, and interest groups, at the expense of political parties. It would, however, have the effect of increasing some kinds of demographic diversity.  Let me explain that first point...party campaign money, whether raised by formal party committees or through party networks, is already a national market; it's not especially likely that it would increase if there were more elections to spend it on.  So party money as a percentage of all money raised would go down.  Money in general, however, would be more important, because press coverage of mini-districts would be even less than is press coverage of our current House districts.

Within the House, more Members would empower leaders at the expense of rank-and-file.  I don't see any good argument for wanting stronger leaders in the House, given that both party and committee leadership is already quite strong. 

One can make the case that some other sorts of representation would improve in a larger House, but I tend to agree with Drum that once you get to 250K people per district (in other words, tripling the size, which is about as much as one can imagine) that personal campaigning would not be relevant anyway.  And if press coverage per Member drops, that would tend to work against more personal representation.

I guess I also question Bartlett's premise, which is that "Congress' dysfunction is becoming so obvious and overwhelming that radical reforms are necessary."  There are some reforms I'd like to see in the House, but I don't think it's obviously or overwhelmingly dysfunctional.  It is very partisan, no question about it.  If I could wave a wand, I'd probably prefer somewhat more autonomy for somewhat less partisan committees and subcommittees, thereby giving minority party Members a somewhat better chance to influence legislation, which in turn might at least soften the edges of their partisanship.  But beyond that, I really don't see a need for massive reform in the House.

Oh, and it's good to see Bartlett citing studies, but I really question their relevance.  The House of Representatives is part of a bicameral transformative legislature.  It's very difficult to compare it to a legislature such as the House of Commons that primarily ratifies decisions by the government. 

No, the part of Congress that could use some reform is the Senate, not the House.  Bartlett has a suggestion there, too, but I'll discuss it in a separate post.

1 comment:

  1. Back in 1910 when the size of the House was limited to 435 members, districts had about 33,000 constituents. If we were to return to this today, we would have over 9,000 members of the House. With an increase to this such size, though it would probably never happen, we would see some interesting things. Like you mentioned, we would probably see a rise in leadership strength, though its possible that we would also see a rise in the amount of political parties; Representatives would be much more responsive to their constituents. In this case, I believe that personal campaigning would become even more relevant than it is today - everyone would know their Congressmen. That's just something I've thought about from time to time.

    I do agree with your reform ideas though, the House isn't in need of much, and the Senate seems to be due. While the slow moving nature of the Senate is something our Founders believed in and I think is good for the country, the pace the Senate has been moving in recent years is way too slow (nomination confirmations, the massive amount of legislation passed by the House and not taken up by the Senate).

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