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Getting a Bigger House

What with the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, now seems about the worst time to think about getting a bigger house–unless, of course, we’re talking about the House of Representatives. There’s a movement afoot to expand the number of members of Congress, motivated by a desire to approach greater representational equity.

This takes a bit of explaining, but first, a pop quiz: How many amendments are there in the Bill of Rights? The reflexive answer is “10.” But the more accurate answer is arguably “11,” and partial credit should also be given for 12.

It’s a trick question, sort of, or at least a complicated one. The Founders (particularly Anti-Federalists) were promised something in Philadelphia in terms of civil liberties and rights as venerated by many colonial constitutions, and the 1st Congress promptly passed 12 proposed amendments. The first 10 of these were ratified rather quickly and are commonly known today as the Bill of Rights. (Although it should be said that, because most of them animate the ideal of negative liberty–that is, restrictions placed upon the government to prevent it from infringing or restricting our core freedoms, which is why the words “no” or “not” appear so frequently in Amendment I thru X–the 10 ought better be labeled a “Bill of Liberties.”)

The other two amendments remained proposed but never ratified–until 1992, when, amazingly enough, a very entrepreneurial young legislative aide from Texas named Gregory Watson completed a decade-long effort to get one of the two amendments ratified. The amendment of interest to him was the one that would require an intervening congressional election between votes for any congressional compensation increase. (Some state governments have this provision already on their books or in their constitutions.) Realizing several states had already ratified it in the late 18th century, and another pack did so in the late 19th, in the early 1980s Watson set about pestering enough of the remaining states that had not ratified it to reach 38–the three-quarters threshold. It took Watson and his allies over a decade, but more than 200 years after its proposal the 27th Amendment, a step-cousin of sorts to the original so-called Bill of Rights, was ratified.

Hence, you might say the answer is 11.

Which leaves one final proposed-but-not-yet-ratified amendment among those original 12. That proposal–known as either the “Congressional Apportionment Amendment” or “Article the First,” because it was the first one proposed–would have benchmarked House representation to 30,000 citizens per House district. Had that amendment been ratified then, or at some subsequent moment, and left in effect until today, in a country presently with 300 million people we would thus be talking about the first Congress following the 2010 Census having 10,000 House members. To just 100 senators. Yikes! Almost every state would have more members in its House delegation than either its state senate or state assembly house. (Best I can tell, only California and Texas presently have U.S. House delegations bigger than–and thus House constituencies smaller than–their respective state senates, which is amazing enough. I mean, a state senator with more constituents than a congresswoman? Weird, eh?)

Anyway, the current U.S. House is just 435 members, of course, as it has been, more or less, for nearly a century. The average district size at the start of this decade was about 670,000 persons, and that should increase with next year’s Census to about 700,00, which of course is roughly the same size or somewhat bigger than the populations of the seven states so small they only qualify for the single, at-large member the Constitution mandates in Article I. To rectify some of the disparities caused by this, advocates want to expand the total number of House seats. (If this doesn’t make intuitive sense, consider the situation in what might be called the limits–51 House members, where 49 states would get 1 and California would get the extra to make 2; or, say, 30 million seats, where every 10 of us would have a representative and there would be essentially perfectly proportional representation for each of the 50 states. (I didn’t go through this little mental exercise to be cute; I’m going to return to it in just a minute.)

In any case, here is political reporter Peter Baker explaining the situation in the New York Times yesterday:

Redrawing the lines will address some of the population shifts over the last decade, but much of the disparity will remain, because it is built into the system. In theory, every member of the House represents roughly the same number of people. But because each state gets at least one seat, no matter how small its population, and because the overall size of the House has not changed in a century, the number of people represented by a single congressman can vary widely.

The most populous district in America right now, according to the latest Census data, is Nevada’s 3rd District, where 960,000 people are represented in the House by just one member. All of Montana’s 958,000 people likewise have just one vote in the House. By contrast, 523,000 in Wyoming get the same voting power, as do the 527,000 in one of Rhode Island’s two districts and the 531,000 in the other.

That 400,000-person disparity between top and bottom has generated a federal court challenge that is set to be filed Thursday in Mississippi, charging that the system effectively disenfranchises people in certain states. The lawsuit asks the courts to order the House to fix the problem by increasing its size from 435 seats to at least 932, or perhaps as many as 1,761. That way, the plaintiffs argue, every state can have districts that are close to parity.

“When you look at the data, those are pretty wide disparities,” said Scott Scharpen, a former health care financial consultant from California who has organized the court challenge. “As an American looking at it objectively, how can we continue with a system where certain voters’ voting power is substantially smaller than others’?”

Now, my initial reaction is, fine, this would certainly remedy, partially if not perfectly, the disparities in representation. And I realize this could be done without a constitutional amendment, unlike the abolition of the Senate, which many have called for over the years because its representational disparities are far greater.

But I can’t help myself. I say: Right idea, wrong chamber.

Indeed, the better idea would be to push for a constitutional amendment not to eliminate the Senate, or even to make it exactly like the House, but to at least move it closer toward more equipopulous representation. For example, if we added another 50 senate seats, to be redistributed based on population above and beyond the guaranteed two each state already receives, that would bring it in somewhat closer proportion. We could even set an upper limit so that no state has, say, more than five as well as none having fewer than two. That would actually go some distance, however partial, toward remedying the grotesque disparities of the Senate–and yet still give smaller states a disproportionate share of the seats relative to their population shares, just not as disproportionate.

Of course, I realize that few U.S. senators, and probably no small-state senators, will want to propose such an amendment. (Likewise for state legislators from those states who would have to ratify it, barring the use of state conventions.) Such a proposal would thus likely require a constitutional convention.

That raises an idea: If the town hall protesters want to redirect their energies elsewhere, maybe they can agitate for such an amendment. Many of them claim to believe in having everyone heard, and as it is now some people–smaller and more rural and whiter citizens, it should be said–are heard disproportionately in the halls of Congress, which in part explains why we can’t get health care reform in the damn first place.

OOPS!: Sorry, a few typos in there as I was rushing to make a meeting. The other 10 members of the House’s 435 have been restored!