As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, September 18, 2009

The People's House

One of the more persistent problems with our democracy is the distance between politicians and the people. This is exacerbated by the gradual increase of the constituency, since the House of Representatives has not been expanded in almost 100 years. In the Senate it's far worse, as equal protection laws are violated on a daily basis, with my representation in California equaling the representation of Wyoming, despite this state having 74 times as many people in it. This problem of unequal representation exists in the House as well, and a group of lawyers have organized a challenge to the status quo, calling for an expansion of the House to address these inequities.

The most populous district in America right now, according to the latest Census data, is Nevada’s 3rd District, where 960,000 people are represented in the House by just one member. All of Montana’s 958,000 people likewise have just one vote in the House. By contrast, 523,000 in Wyoming get the same voting power, as do the 527,000 in one of Rhode Island’s two districts and the 531,000 in the other.

That 400,000-person disparity between top and bottom has generated a federal court challenge that is set to be filed Thursday in Mississippi, charging that the system effectively disenfranchises people in certain states. The lawsuit asks the courts to order the House to fix the problem by increasing its size from 435 seats to at least 932, or perhaps as many as 1,761. That way, the plaintiffs argue, every state can have districts that are close to parity.

“When you look at the data, those are pretty wide disparities,” said Scott Scharpen, a former health care financial consultant from California who has organized the court challenge. “As an American looking at it objectively, how can we continue with a system where certain voters’ voting power is substantially smaller than others’?”

No incumbent will really want to change a system that dilutes their own power. They won't even sign off on giving DC voting rights in the House and expanding the body to 437 (there's an extra member for Utah in that compromise measure). But for decades, this was standard practice, with the House expanding from 65 members to 435. Other countries have governing bodies of up to 600 members despite having smaller countries. Our Congressional districts hold 700,000 people on average, which is just incredibly unwieldy. This would also rejigger the Electoral College in Presidential elections, as each state gets electoral votes based on their number of Representatives. Adding seats to shrink Congressional districts would dilute the inequity of the Senate in those elections and move us closer to a one-person, one-vote standard there.

Really we should have a unicameral legislature and a national popular vote for President, but those are a way off. The Supreme Court has never weighed in on mandating additional House members, and given the current makeup, not much good may come of that either. But it's time to build a political coalition for these changes. The bigger a Congressional district gets, the further removed that member of Congress gets from the people. It leads to Blue Dogs who don't vote their districts but can fake it using campaign contributions from corporate interests. It makes it harder for challengers to raise their profile. If you want to spark something TRULY populist, contra the teabaggers, it would be to expand the House of Representatives.

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