Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Bring the House closer to the voters

Jerry Stratton, March 30, 2015

Cannon House Office Building hall

“We’re going to need about nine thousand more doors, sir.”

Every once in a while a historically-minded conservative will complain about how the seventeenth amendment, by mandating popular election of senators instead of leaving the decision to state legislators1 upended the senate’s traditional role as defender of local interests over national interests, leaving the states themselves with no representation in congress.

But there was another important change about the same time. Originally, the House of Representatives had about one representative for every 30,000 voters. This began to get unwieldy so congress passed a law restricting the House to 435 members, so that, today, there are over 700,000 voters per representative.

Obviously, this makes the House less local, too. At the time the decision made sense. Without it, the House would currently have slightly over 1,500 members. At the original one representative per 30,000 voters, the House would have over ten thousand members. That would be nearly, if not absolutely, impossibly unwieldy in a single building in Washington DC.

But today having thousands of people meet together is a snap, it’s something we do literally every day. We could reassert local control by returning to the original ratio and requiring representatives to remain in their districts, discussing and voting by Internet, phone, and whatever other collaborative technologies the mind of man devises.

This would help restore the balance of local over national that we lost with the seventeenth amendment, but it would do so in a manner that increases the power of individual voters rather than decreasing it. This makes the change a potentially popular one. The dangers to its passage are that it would reduce the effectiveness of outside lobbyists, because it is at once harder for outsiders to lobby everyone, and easier for constituents to lobby their own representative—who will live and work nearby.

Part of the problem with freezing the size of the House is that technology has made it easier to lobby en masse, and the frozen size means that the cost to lobby the entire House did not rise as our population rose. That is, the cost to lobby the entire House fell while the cost to lobby an individual member rose: each voter became worth less to each representative as the total number of voters increased. So representatives simultaneously grew distant from their growing number of constituents while closer to technology-empowered national interests.

I am aware that, while restoring the House to local voters would likely enjoy strong public support it would have very little support within the House itself, making the idea just as much spit-balling as repeal of the seventeenth amendment, but for the opposite reason. Since a return to popular representation would have little support in the House, it would need strong support in the Senate and the White House.

It’s possible that this change would not even require a constitutional amendment. The change to the ratio certainly doesn’t; the question is whether the constitution requires that the House meet in the same place. The constitution does not specify a specific place to meet, and it almost seems to go out of its way to not specify the manner of meeting. The closest two mentions of terminology that might imply a specific place are in terms of adjournment, arrest, and authority over the capital:

Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.

They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;

Whether this would require a constitutional amendment in order for the House to meet on the Internet with each member in their own district, I don’t know. I think the change is worth the debate.2

In response to The Bureaucracy Event Horizon: Government bureaucracy is the ultimate broken window.

  1. Which, for the most part, used popular election to make the choice.

  2. The one definite constitutional challenge is that, to preserve one of the remaining benefits of the electoral college—the strengthening of geographical minorities—the electoral college would need to not be composed of a number of electors equal to the two senators plus however many representatives the state has. The House side of the equation is already lopsided today.

  1. <- Surviving the anointed
  2. Suicide and bureaucracy ->