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Expand the House
On Calvin Coolidge, orderly debate, and the need to expand the House in order to dilute the power of the cranks
A certain level of mayhem is probably inherent to the lower houses of most democratically-elected legislatures. Anyone who thinks legislative hijinks are an exclusively American phenomenon needs to spend some time watching the Prime Minister's Questions from the British Parliament (or just a super-cut of former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow screaming "Order!" at his colleagues).
■ That doesn't make the marathon to elect a Speaker of the House any less embarrassing, but it does raise a point worth considering. The United States House of Representatives hasn't grown since 1929, even though our current population (at 334 million) is approaching three times the roughly 122 million it was then. The House wouldn't really have to triple in size to be more appropriate, but it really must be made larger than it is.
■ The Founders imagined much more representation than we put to use now. In Federalist Paper No. 56, either Hamilton or Madison wrote that "[I]t seems to give the fullest assurance, that a representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants will render the latter both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it." We're at a representative for about every three-quarters of a million people today. Enlarging the membership of the House to come into line with a principle like the Cube Root Law might have merit for a number of reasons.
■ First, in shrinking the population of the average Congressional district, we would make it easier for individual voters to have access to their representatives. Smaller districts would also, quite likely, be easier to win with relatively smaller campaign budgets (thus diminishing the much-hated influence of money in politics). Smaller districts might also discourage the sort of gerrymandering which Americans have learned to hate.
■ But a bigger House could also do two favorable things regarding the qualities of its members. First, a broader population could well have the effect of drawing in people from a wider range of occupational and other backgrounds -- we don't have many engineers or computer programmers in Congress, and maybe we should have a few in a technologically sophisticated world.
■ Second, a bigger House of Representatives should tend to dilute the power of individual cranks. Any given sample of a hundred or more people is likely to contain a few bad actors. But if we generally trust the public to select away from nuts, then their relative impact should be lessened if the individual bad apples who get through the process are diluted among many other more-normal individuals.
■ Notably, expanding the House of Representatives would be an almost frictionless way to make the Electoral College more proportional, since a larger number of electoral votes assigned via House seats would reduce the relative weight of electoral votes arising from Senate seats. No Constitutional amendments or National Popular Votes required -- just a statutory change.
■ And the cost of adding House members would be trivial; each member's office costs about $2 million a year, between salaries and the operating expenses of their offices. Adding members would barely move the needle from a budgetary perspective, since the same number of constituents could be served by more or less the same number of offices and staffers who serve them now.
■ Expanding the House wouldn't solve every problem, but it does have the potential to mitigate some of the chamber's most unflattering aspects. In the past century, the country's population has nearly tripled, and our national problems have grown in complexity by a factor of much more than three. Holding steady at the same number of Representatives who served when Calvin Coolidge was President is only a way to invite tiny factions to hold everyone else hostage.