Greetings from Mt. Vernon, Virginia! Ed and I make our home on land that once belonged to President George Washington. His home, Mt. Vernon, is not far from our house! I find today’s issue of the total number of the House of Representatives even more fascinating because it was the only issue on which President Washington offered an opinion during the Constitutional Convention! As our distinguished Guest Constitutional Scholar, David Bobb points out, George Washington seconded a motion to reduce the ratio of House Members to people from 40,000: 1 to 30,000: 1. This must have signified Washington’s strong feelings that the U.S. House be “of the people.”
I’ve spent most of my career working in and around Congress and never knew that the original ratio in the U.S. Constitution of U.S. House Member to constituents was 30,000: 1 !! I do know that the average Congressional district today contains roughly 700,000 people. I also know that the immense size of these districts, both by population, and often geographically, makes it expensive to run campaigns, and demanding, schedule-wise, for U.S. House members to be all the places they need to be.
Dr. Bobb points out the last time an adjustment was made in total size of the U.S. House was 1912, when it was adjusted to 435, the current number today. Despite the fact that the size of the U.S. House has not been adjusted since the early 1900’s, I believe it would be very difficult, expensive, and not necessary for quality of representation, to increase the size of the U.S. House.
Increasing the size of the U.S. House would necessitate adding more office space and staff, a difficult proposition on crowded Capitol Hill. Staff are already crammed into every nook and cranny that exist in the House office buildings, and many Committee staff are blocks away in “annex” office space. One could argue that if the size of the U.S. House were to be increased, individual staff sizes per Member and office budgets per member could be reduced. In practice, it is hard to imagine Members of Congress voting to reduce their staff or office budgets, even if the number of constituents they represented decreased.
With today’s technology, members of Congress are able to represent much larger congressional districts, yet be in touch with their constituents in more direct and intimate ways than their 1912 counterparts ever dreamed possible. Members of Congress “tweet”; answer messages on Facebook; participate in “tele-Town Hall Meetings” (large dial in conference calls); hold interactive polls on their websites; hire pollsters to conduct professional polls; receive instantaneous input on legislation via email (rather than wait days for snail mail to catch up with their votes cast); field thousands of telephone calls to their offices, and of course still hold the traditional town hall meetings. In geographically large congressional districts members often traverse the district via airplane. Youtube, 24 hour cable TV news, the plethora of radio and internet talk shows and blogs, all put members of Congress at an engaged citizen’s fingertips.
Many would argue that despite new ways of communicating with constituents, Congress doesn’t seem to be listening. Increasing the size of Congress would not change this phenomenon. Congress listens at the ballot box. Citizens must become educated and engaged, and remember that as Janine so eloquently put in one of her op-eds, your vote is your voice.
As I encouraged in a recent essay, get to know your member of Congress. Go to a town meeting and ask a question. Write a letter, send an email, request a meeting in DC or your congressional district. Visit with his or her staff. Research your U.S. Representative’s voting record. You may be either pleasantly surprised, or have your worst suspicions confirmed. But either way, you will be able to make an educated decision in November.
I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under any circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery.—Federalist No. 55
Tuesday, July 13th, 2010