Check Mate

While the battle rages about a new Supreme Court Justice being confirmed before the end of 2020, there is a more significant problem that could change the face of national politics in Washington, D.C. for generations to come.  It is an idea that has been rattling around in my head for thirty years: The House of Representatives does not permit its members to adequately represent their constituents due to its small size which limits a member’s ability to truly and more accurately represent the voices of his or her constituents.

When our Constitution was being ratified, the arguments for a stronger federal government and a bi-cameral legislature were front and center of the debate.  As the number of members of the House of Representatives was being discussed and debated, it occurred to the Founding Fathers that there should be a mechanism to ensure that the members of the House represented a set number of people in the nation and that its membership increase over time as the population increased. Indeed, the first proposed Constitutional Amendment contained a provision that there would be one Representative for every 30,000 citizens. Today, that would translate into approximately 8,275 members!

Of course, there is no way that the leaders of the thirteen original states could ever have imagined that one day the population of their little, barely independent nation would one day contain more than 330 million people or that it would stretch halfway into the Pacific Ocean and up to the Arctic Circle.  Indeed, there is also no way those same individuals would ever believe that one member of the House of Representatives could adequately and fairly be a voice of the people when they represent almost three-quarters of a million voices.

However, the author of Federalist Paper No. 52 stated the goal quite succinctly: “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.” In 2020, with each member of the House of Representatives representing 720,000 residents, that is nigh impossible.

In fact, it is too large a number for any one person to represent effectively and efficiently. It makes each House election a huge fundraising circus requiring millions of dollars to run even the smallest campaign.  It permits special interests to have a huge stake in the outcome of the election, and allows them to cherry pick candidates because they only need 218 votes to advance their special interests.

This has not gone unnoticed, either by special interests nor Republican-controlled states whose populations have not grown as fast as the rest of the nation.  The last increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives occurred after the passage of the Apportionment Act of 1911, when in 1912, the number went to 435 members. This number was capped by further legislation after the Reapportionment Act of 1929 which set the total number at no greater than 435.

For almost one hundred and ten years, the only numbers that have changed are 1) the apportionment of members of the House of Representatives between the states themselves and 2) the number of people these members now represent.  And yet, according to Federalist Paper No. 54:  “I take for granted … that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution.” But that hasn’t been done since 1929, and in practice from 1912.

A few times in our nation’s history, Congress has attempted to decrease the number of people a single U.S. House of Representatives member represents.  At one time, the proposed “Wyoming Rule” was debated and discussed.  The rule would establish the ratio of one House member per the number of residents of the smallest state.  In this case, that would fall to the State of Wyoming.  In this manner, Wyoming would have one member, which is the minimum required under the U.S. Constitution, and every other Congressional District would have the same amount of constituents.

With a Population of approximately 550,000, Wyoming would set the number of members of the House at 602.  This is far larger than the current 435.

Another proposal is the “Cube Root Rule.” The Cube Root Rule would set the overall membership in the entire Congress based upon the cube root of the nation’s population at each census.  Additionally, the number would increase in the legislature each time the national population exceeds the next cube.  According to today’s numbers, the Cube Root Rule would set the entire number of legislators at 692 members.  The Cube Root Rule would also allow the Senate and the House to perhaps cull that number by the number of Senators, so that the House would have 592 members and the Senate 100, or it could set the House membership at 692.

For decades these ideas have been percolating in my head. Today, these numbers are closer to reality than ever before.

There are two reasons for that.  First, there is serious talk in Washington that the next Congress will move to admit both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia as states to the Union. This would add four Senators and at least three members to the House of Representatives, if not five.

Second, while passing a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College will not have enough votes to make it out of the Congress even with Democratic majorities in both chambers, increasing the number of members of the House of Representatives and lowering the apportionment numbers establishing the total membership body of the House would substantially increase Democratic political power throughout the country – even as Republican-controlled state legislatures try to Gerrymander them in 2021.

It would eviscerate the Republican Party in national politics and give the nation’s population centers, which lean Democratic, a much greater say in Washington, D.C. This scenario is not only possible: some would say it is actually likely right now.

The power play taking shape in the replacement of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will allow the Democratic majorities in Congress in January 2021 to not fear any backlash. They will be able to argue effectively that given what the GOP Senators said in 2016, and yet did in 2020, they are doing something that in the eyes of their supporters increases citizens’ representation and decreases the power of elites to control the democratic (small D) process. It will also give voice to the unrepresented United States citizens in D.C. and Puerto Rico, while simultaneously increasing the Democratic electorate’s power. For Democrats, it is a win-win proposition. Once the numbers of House members are increased and two additional states are added to Old Glory, the GOP will likely never have the votes in either the Senate or the House to reduce the number of members of the House of Representatives, and there is no constitutional or statutory mechanism to rescind statehood. Check mate.

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