The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

24 July 2004

Representation and then some

From the US Constitution, Article I, Section 2:

The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative.

For the first Congress, the Constitution spelled out the number of Representatives for each state, a total of 65; after 1790, with Census figures available, the House was enlarged to 106 members, with Virginia having the most (nineteen) and Delaware and the newly-admitted Tennessee with one each.

By 1850, the House had grown to 232 members, and the method used to apportion the Representatives was changed to allow for a fixed House size, though the continued admittance of new states kept increasing the number until finally in 1911 the number was fixed at 435. (In 1960 this was increased to 437 to allow one Representative each for Alaska and Hawaii; in 1970 it was dropped back to 435.) Based on the 2000 Census, each of those 435 represented an average of 646,952 persons, well beyond the "thirty Thousand" described in the Constitution; with the national population now over 280 million, that ratio would result in a House with over 9,000 members.

Five years ago, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) floated a notion to expand the House by thirty seats, making the following pitch:

Most of the new seats would go to states in the South and the West. But several would also go to states facing knockdown drag-out fights by minority groups, who worry that they will lose representation when their state loses a seat.

At the time, I scoffed:

Istook has been screaming about the evils of Big Government for years; why would he suddenly want to make one house of Congress seven percent bigger? He hasn't come to his senses — he fears the Census is coming to him. The population of Oklahoma is growing substantially slower than the national average. In 1990, the state narrowly missed losing one of its six seats in the House. In 2000, losing a seat is almost inevitable, which means that there's at least a one-in-six chance that Istook will have to get a real job.

In 2000, we did lose a seat; however, Istook remains in the House.

D. Frank Robinson, running for Congress as a Libertarian, argues this way:

I believe there is a significant relationship between a century of progressively diluting the people's representation in the U.S. House, where all spending bills must originate, and the plunge in the value of U.S. currency, the vast rise in taxation and debt, and the emergence of an excessively militaristic foreign policy and imperialist Presidency — all in service to an anti-capitalistic corporate fascism. The Congress no longer declares war, guards the nation's money, or uses the power of the Commerce clause strictly, it just makes a show of squawking about details of bills and pass bills on subjects for which they have authority. Then they enact without even reading whatever the Executive demands as expedient for corporate interests.

Does Robinson want, as did Istook, 465 members of the House? Not even close. In Mr Robinson's idealized Congress, there are 1,776 members, which, assuming a 2010 population of 300 million, would cut the number of persons represented by each member to less than 170,000.

They could probably squeeze 600 into the existing House chambers; I'm not so sure they can handle triple that number. Still, while I have doubts about Robinson's proposal, there's a fair amount of truth in his complaint, and smaller districts, I think, might be more difficult (though by no means impossible) to gerrymander. And speaking of which, Robinson has an idea to allow individual voters to pick their own districts, which would definitely change the shape of things.

And I admit to being bemused by the thought of the big electronic map on Election Night 2012, red and blue LEDs at the ready, and the notice: Electoral Votes Needed to Win: 889.

D. Frank Robinson is seeking the Fifth District seat in Oklahoma, currently held by — wait for it — Ernest Istook. With the Democratic challenger, Harley Venters, toeing the leftist line without missing a step, and Istook being, well, Istook, Robinson might look pretty good by November.

(Update: I failed to notice that Harley Venters himself had a primary challenger, the even-more-unknown Bert Smith, who actually won; it will be Istook vs Smith vs Robinson in November.)

Posted at 12:02 AM to Political Science Fiction


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Robinson's pick-your-own-district idea is appealing. It approaches my own idea of "at-large" representation, where some number of certified signatures (from persons who, by signing the petition, voluntarily ceded their privilege of voting for the office in any geographically defined district) would elevate a man to the House with no requirement for an election, as a Representative-at-Large. The point is to eliminate the sense of non-representation suffered by the minorities in districts that are routinely dominated by one party.

There are many other approaches, but I've always liked this one. It pulls people into the process, by promising them that their "vote" will really accomplish something.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 5:22 AM on 24 July 2004

At large representation would also put a token number of Libertarians, Reform(ists?)(ers?), and Greens (ack!) into the House.

Nevertheless, the time has come. It's s good idea.

Posted by: Dan at 7:08 PM on 24 July 2004

Thanks for the commentary. As of this date 08/03/2004, it appears more likely that Oklahoma may be the only state without any Libertarian candidates on the ballot this year. Our case is still pending, but unless we get a favorable decision by mid-Spetember, it looks like a fugitaboutit. Well, just push on to 2006. Hip deep in the big muddy in Oklahoma and the big fools say to circulate a petition!

Posted by: D. Frank Robinson at 6:26 PM on 3 August 2004