Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2005/ 3 Shavat, 5765
A bigger, more democratic Congress
Iraqis go to the polls on Jan. 30 to choose the first truly democratic government in their nation's history. If all goes well, the election will result in a new National Assembly of 275 members, drawn from different political parties roughly in proportion to the share of the vote each party receives.
The distance Iraq has come in less than two years is remarkable. In January 2003, all political power in the country was concentrated in the hands of a single sadistic dictator. He represented, and answered to, no one but himself. Today, 7,200 candidates are campaigning for the privilege of holding office in a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people. If that isn't progress, nothing is.
It is thanks to the United States, of course, that Iraq is about to join the ranks of the planet's democracies. Ironically, the moment the new National Assembly is seated, Iraq will surpass the US Congress in one key measure of democratic legitimacy: the ratio of elected lawmakers to citizens.
Divide Iraq's 25 million people by the number of members in the new parliament (275), and the result is one legislator for every 91,000 people. That will make Iraq's government almost exactly as representative as Great Britain's each member of the House of Commons also represents, on average, about 91,000 citizens. Other democracies are comparable. The ratio for Italy's Chamber of Deputies is 1 to 92,000. For the French National Assembly, 1 to 104,000. For Canada's House of Commons, 1 to 105,000. For Germany's Bundestag, 1 to 136,000.
But in the US House of Representatives, each lawmaker represents, on average, a staggering 674,000 citizens. That makes the "people's house" in Washington one of the least democratic bodies of its kind in the world. No wonder so many Americans feel alienated from Congress. The vastness of their constituencies has turned too many representatives into distant careerists, political moguls with bloated staffs and bloated egos who are more closely attuned to their campaign war chests than to the lives of the people they are supposed to represent.
Term limits would help reconnect members of Congress with their districts, as would an end to blatantly partisan gerrymandering. But there is an even better way to make Congress more democratic: Make it bigger.
Preposterous? It shouldn't be. When the Framers drafted the Constitution, they fully expected that as the American population grew, so would the House of Representatives. "I take for granted," James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 55, "that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution." He was writing to rebut charges that the proposed House was too small to be democratic and would turn into an oligarchy. He repeated the point in Federalist Nos. 56 and 58, noting that the purpose of the decennial census was to facilitate the growth of the House.
And growth there was. From 65 seats in 1789, the House grew to 105 after the 1790 Census tallied 3.9 million Americans putting the ratio of representatives to citizens at 1 to 37,000. After the 1800 Census, the House was enlarged to 142, then to 186 after the 1810 Census, 213 after the 1820 Census, and so on for more than a century. The increase in House members always lagged behind the increase in population, so the number of citizens per member of Congress steadily rose.
Still, it was 1860 before the ratio went over 1 for every 100,000, and not until 1910, when the House expanded to 435 members, that it surpassed 1 for every 200,000. But in the years since, the number of House seats has remained fixed at 435, while the population has more than tripled. The result is today's swollen congressional districts, each of which now contains more people than most states did when the Constitution was ratified.
Enlarging the House to around 1,300 members triple its current size would doubtless take some getting used to. But the benefits would more than outweigh any inconvenience.
Among them: Congress would be enriched by a great infusion of new blood and new ideas. Congressional staffs could be sharply reduced. Smaller districts would promote greater political intimacy elections would be more likely to turn on personal campaigning and local ties instead of costly mass-media advertising. No longer would states have to lose seats in Congress even though their population had grown, and with fewer votes needed to get elected, the House would be more likely to reflect the nation's social and political diversity.
As the number of people grow, the "people's house" should grow. On this as on so much else, the Framers had it right.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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