Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Big House

With reapportionment in the news today, there's been some tweeting about a recurring Big Think kind of reform: increasing, perhaps radically increasing, the size of the House of Representatives.  David Dayen:
Why is increasing the size of the House of Representatives, so 1 lawmaker doesn't represent 700,000 people, just completely off the table?
And Reihan Salam:
Montana has 989,415 people and one member of Congress. We need to increase the number of House members to at least 650. This is absurd.
I think this is one of those reforms that has a lot of surface appeal -- in fact, I can say for sure that it has a lot of surface appeal to me.  However, it turns out that the case for expanding the House doesn't really hold up too well when one thinks about how it would actually play out.

There are really two major parts to this: how a Big House (I'd say Salam's 650 or more; Nick Beaudrot has floated the idea of tripling the size of the House) would affect elections, and how it would affect internal House operations.

For elections, the problem with a Big House is that, given residential patterns and assuming no change in single-member districts, we would wind up with even more lopsided partisan districts than we have now.  Indeed, all the incentives of reapportionment would work the same as they do now, which combined with good modern technology would mean that we would probably wind up with about the same number of swing districts, but far more solid partisan districts.  Meanwhile, more districts mean even less media coverage for each contested election -- and I would strongly argue that more media coverage is almost always a good thing.  Small districts with little or no media coverage are a recipe for a strong incumbency advantage, which few people see as a really good thing.

How would the operations of the House change if it had more Members?  What it would mainly produce is more backbenchers, people who have no particular responsibilities but a good forum for making noise.  At the same time, with more people to coordinate, the need for coordination grows, which would tend to make the party leadership even more important than it already is.  I'm not sure I see any real advantages in that. 

Against that I can see two advantages.  One, a real one, is that any shakeup of the House (well, I suppose any shakeup except a GOP landslide) is apt to be good for demographic change in that body, especially in accelerating the growth of women in the House.  In my view, that's a good thing.  The other I think is mostly a mirage -- with a larger House, constituents might feel closer to their Member of Congress.  The problem here is that even with an extreme reform -- tripling the size of the House -- we're still not going to get fewer than 250K people per representative.  In practical terms, there just isn't really much of a difference between sharing a Member with that many people and sharing her with several millions; in any district larger than, say, one hundred thousand, it's hard to believe that anyone is going to feel he has the undivided attention of his Member of Congress. 

I've blogged on this before...as I said then, I do find this reform idea intriguing, and I very much understand the vague sense that House districts are just too large.  But I'd send everyone back to James Madison, and Federalist 10, in which he has the conceptual breakthrough that large politics are actually an advantage to democracy, even though up to that point in history everyone had always assumed that democracy was only possible in very small polities.  Madison's insight had to do with plurality, and the idea that as a nation gets very large, no single interest will have a natural majority, and so the danger of majority tyranny that had always undermined that form of government would be at least partially solved.  Now, that doesn't mean that individual representatives should have millions of constituents, but I think it also suggests that such a situation isn't as much of a problem as we might intuitively believe.  After all, what (rightly!) bothers people about the Senate is the malapportionment, not the idea that there are only 100 Senators.  And note that most of us feel a lot closer to our Senators than to our Member of the House -- because our Senators get so much more publicity than do Members of the House.  Increasing the size of the House would, alas, only make that problem worse.

8 comments:

  1. What we really need are non-partisan, instant run-off elections, so we can have centrist candidates without risk of "splitting the vote". My recommendation would be an open primary to narrow the ballot to the top five candidates, followed by a general election. In both primary and general, voters would rank the candidates from most to least desirable, and an elimination system would be used to determine the winner.

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  2. Wouldn't you have to build 2 new Rayburn buildings for the extra staff? The mind boggles at the cost of that.

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  3. You make a good point about the importance of media coverage, which is proportionate to the number of voters involved in a contest. If smaller districts mean greater political participation, then we'd see more spirited races for City Council seats than for Congress, and I don't think there's much evidence for that.

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  4. Hamilton, in the Federalist, makes a big deal about how of course almost all the voters would be paying much more attention to the state legislators, and less to the House, and even less to the Senate. Broadcasting has reversed that, and it's a problem for that part of the Federalist argument...

    Thanks,
    -V.

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  5. The mind boggles at the cost of that.

    The entire legislative branch, including the Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capitol, is about $5.1 billion, out of a budget of what, $1.5 trillion? Double it, and it's still change from between the federal couch cushions.

    Cost isn't a reason to not do it.

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  6. Well, forget about the cost, but one Rayburn building is bad enough...three of them! Yikes! That thing is a monstrosity.

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  7. I wonder how a bigger House would affect the Electoral College. Wouldn't more populated, blue states gain more seats than the large, empty red states in such a scheme?

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  8. The EC as of now is basically neutral. Don't forget, there are also small, empty states that go for the Dems: VT, RI, DE, HI, ME.

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