Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WE CONSTANTLY hear that the only way to get better politicians is to decrease their money supply. I have a better idea. Let's increase the number of politicians.
I am not on crack.
During and after the constitutional convention, one of the most contentious issues was how to calculate the proper number of representatives for our new democracy. Indeed, George Washington only interrupted the Constitutional Convention once, to express his concern that the proposed number of constituents-per-congressman ratio was too high.
The chief complaints were summed up by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. Such Dom DeLuise-sized districts would not "possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents." Worse, as the population grew, Congress "will be more and more disproportionate, by the increase of the people and the obstacles which will prevent a correspondent increase of the representatives."
So how big were these massive districts? A stunning 30,000 Americans for every representative. In fact, the original plan was for 40,000 voters per seat, but George Washington implored the Constitutional Convention not to make districts so huge that House members would never be able to represent their constituents fairly.
Well, the new census data just came out at the end of December (I'm sure you partied as hardy as I did when you got the word). Guess how many people the average congressman represents today? More than 600,000.
Under today's formula, the entire United States would have had fewer than seven congressmen in 1790, the year of the first census. Half of the 16 ratified states of 1790 wouldn't have a combined population equal to a single congressional district today. The total populations of America's five largest cities at the time - New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, Boston - would have yielded enough political clout to share one-quarter of one current representative.
Madison defended the relatively small number of representatives by pointing out that the size of the House would keep growing with the population. No doubt he couldn't have anticipated that the United States would reach almost 300 million people by the end of 20th century or that Congress would freeze permanently its size at 435 seats in 1911 (except for two years when we added Alaska and Hawaii, for a total of 437).
But Madison did concede, in Federalist 55, that if Congress were to remain too small for too long it could be an invitation to tyranny and corruption. Well, statistically speaking, the House of Representatives has never, ever, been so teeny-weeny.
At the time of the first census, only Virginia had a population that exceeded 600,000 people. With 692,000 inhabitants, it boasted 19 representatives. Today, poor Montana the largest single-district state has 905,000 residents and only one representative. The "less democratic" Senate essentially allots one Senator for every 452,500 Montanans.
If 1790 standards were applied, we would have no fewer than 9,300 representatives. And remember: Madison's standards - and the 30,000 number - were attacked by some as elitist and potentially tyrannical. So, why can't we have a more representative democracy?
The first answer comes in the form of "more of the same" arguments. Congress already costs and spends too much; more representatives will mean more costs and more spending. Or critics note that government is already gridlocked and beholden to special interests. Adding a lot more congressmen would be like adding more monkey wrenches into the machinery.
It's a fair concern, but would it really make things worse? An interesting attribute of a cacophony is that no matter how many more voices you add to it, a cacophony it remains. Moreover, these mammoth districts could be the source of our gridlock woes.
Couldn't it be that congressmen are beholden to special interests because without the help of organized political groups like the AFL-CIO, the NAACP or the NRA it's almost impossible to win? More than 90 percent of incumbents win reelection; maybe that's because congressmen have learned to represent coalitions of interest groups rather than actual communities.
This would all be solved by simply expanding the size of Congress. It's even conceivable that a Congress of thousands would lead to less, not more, pork. With a Congress of, say, 10,000, it would be impossible for the nation to withstand a new bridge, road or military base in every district. The grade-school chewing-gum rule would have to apply: "If you don't have enough (pork) for everyone, then nobody can have any."
Of course, we'd have to cut congressional staffs and do a lot of voting electronically. So what? The real threat to democracy isn't too many congressmen working too hard, it's too many members of the permanent bureaucracy working too little. And electronic voting is hardly scary in the digital age.
No, what makes this idea a pipe dream is that congressmen and the interests they represent see little benefit in having their votes and prestige diluted or having 10,000 palms to