Slog Music

Music, Nightlife,
and Drinks

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Congress Is Broken. So Let's Make it Bigger

Posted by on Tue, Jan 1, 2013 at 4:19 PM

As House Republicans threaten to shove our nation's economy off the "fiscal cliff," it's important to remember that they do so with absolutely no popular mandate. Yes, Republicans managed to hold on to a 242-193 majority in the House, but they did so even while Democratic House candidates collected a million more votes than Republicans nationwide.

Yeah, I know, that's how congressional elections work. We elect representatives by district, not divvied proportionally to the popular vote. But the Republican hold on the House is largely made possible through gerrymandering, sometimes to a bizarrely anti-democratic extent. For example, in my native Pennsylvania, Republicans lost the aggregate congressional vote by a 2.7 million to 2.6 million margin, yet hold a lopsided 13-5 advantage in the House delegation.

One solution might be to set a federal, nonpartisan standard for redrawing districts, along the lines of Washington State's bipartisan redistricting law, but hopefully better. But an even simpler approach would be to double the size of the US House, resulting in smaller, more uniform districts that would be harder to gerrymander.

Surprisingly, there's nothing unconstitutional about this proposal. Indeed, up until the 1920s, the House routinely added seats after the census. In the decades since this arbitrary 435-seat freeze, the population size of each congressional district has grown to the point where it's easier and easier to pack Democrats into a handful of urban districts, while leaving the rest of the districts majority Republican—even in a majority Democratic state. And if the Republicans control the legislature in a redistricting year, that's exactly what Republicans do.

And that's really the secret to the House Republicans' success: Democrats tend to live in densely populated cities where their votes can be easily ghettoized into a gerrymandered district. Whether that's constitutional or not is up for debate. But it's certainly outside the spirit of the Constitution.

No doubt you can still gerrymander an 870 seat House, and no doubt both Republicans and Democrats would still try. But the smaller the size of the district the harder it is to achieve the same effect without resorting to ridiculously outrageous boundaries.

Increasing the size of the House is not an original idea. The proposal is made from time to time, and as the "fiscal cliff" deal unraveled today, I've seen a number of Tweets on the topic. But as Congress once again displays its dysfunction—a dysfunction that is the direct result of a minority party seizing control of one house through a blatant and undemocratic manipulation of the electoral process—it is important to remind ourselves that our dysfunctional political system is not written in stone, let alone in the Constitution. Calls for more comity, collegiality, and bipartisanship in the other Washington are all well and good, but if the system is broken—and it is—then it is stupid not to try to fix it. And in a nation that embraces the principle of one person/one vote, any solution that diminishes the impact of gerrymandering is a solution that should be seriously considered.


Comments (34) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
fletc3her 1
Originally each House member was to represent no less than 30,000 citizens. Today each House member represents about 650,000 citizens. Doubling the size of the House would be a good start, but expanding it by a factor of 20 would restore the original proportions.

On the state level our local House members represent only about 70,000 citizens each. The difference in accessibility is noticeable. I've talked in person with each state House member and received personal responses to letters I've written. I can't say the same for any of our federal congressional delegation.
Posted by fletc3her on January 1, 2013 at 4:39 PM · Report this
dlauri 2
Not a bad idea, but wouldn't it have to wait until some time in the future when the Democrats control the House again? How would you propose forcing a Republican-held House to pass a law increasing the size of the House?
Posted by dlauri on January 1, 2013 at 4:48 PM · Report this
Goldy 3

@2 Yes, but you need to start having the conversation now, so that Dems can run on it.

Posted by Goldy on January 1, 2013 at 4:51 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 4
This is asinine, we don't need twice as many partisan chucklefucks driving the country into the ground. We certainly don't need more politicians, it is bad enough we have the ones we got.

I say fire everyone in the District of Corruption.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on January 1, 2013 at 4:52 PM · Report this
Goldy 5
@4 We do fire 'em. Every two years. And then, thanks in part to gerrymandering, we hire them all right back again.
Posted by Goldy on January 1, 2013 at 5:01 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 6

I was thinking, "We need some kind of visual proof demonstrating why smaller districts would be less gerrymandered." And here is is Exhibit A. This proposal has to be explained better so the groundlings can understand what it does.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on January 1, 2013 at 5:03 PM · Report this
Knat 7 is stupid not to try to fix it.

Thank you for typing "to try to" rather than "to try and..." I seem to encounter that everywhere lately, and it drives me crazy.
Posted by Knat on January 1, 2013 at 5:04 PM · Report this
MrBaker 8
I'm more interested in how the districts are drawn than how many at this point.
Posted by MrBaker on January 1, 2013 at 5:09 PM · Report this

The real "gerrymandering" is using physical location of any sort to define the group of people who get to vote for a "representative".

In this way, they keep any vaguely innovative or dissenting opinion out of Congress.

Imagine if any 500,000 anywhere in America could get together, online, and form a voting bloc and elect a representative who was truly that.

So, a kickboxer in Iowa, an Uber car driver in Seattle and a gun club owner in Texas, all of whom were left of center social liberals and fiscal libertarians could elect someone close to their views.

Why not? I mean, when someone asks me where I live, I say "The Internet". It is true. I can travel anywhere on a cheap Southwest flight, find a room in a Holiday Inn Express with free WiFiand HDMI, used the gym and find the nearest modern open air, "towne" style shopping mall. I live everywhere. So let me choose my House Representative in that way.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on January 1, 2013 at 5:28 PM · Report this
The Founding Fathers were very suspicious of "naked" popular representation, hence the Electoral College, and the original selection process for Senators.The House was envisioned as the radical lower populist chamber. (Ha!) Electing House members per overall %rate of party votes per state would also achieve a better balance, without 50 states fighting over district boundaries.
Posted by pat L on January 1, 2013 at 5:33 PM · Report this
I've got a counter-proposal which (I think) is more feasible: enact a law requiring congressional districts to align with zip code boundaries. Zip codes are efficiently distributed across the map and sized proportional to population density, and are not gerrymandered. They are relatively much smaller than congressional districts, so many of them would be needed to build each district. Gerrymandering would still be possible, of course, and in some cases it is even desired to ensure equitable representation.

I think this proposal would add a small measure of sanity to the process.
Posted by Big Adventure Steve on January 1, 2013 at 5:41 PM · Report this

Heck, representative democracy is obsolete. Born in the days of Committees of Correspondance sending messages in satchels carried by horsemen.

We "vote" with dollars every night on Amazon in the 2010s.

No one questions the safeguards.

Why can't we vote every night online directly?!

"direct democracy" usually refers to citizens making policy and law decisions in person, without going through representatives and legislatures. The classic example of this is the New England Town Meeting where anyone from the town who wants to show up to debate and vote on town policy can do so. Until recently, this worked for scores of communities, but low attendance at many modern town meetings has raised questions about whether they are truly democratic.…
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on January 1, 2013 at 5:41 PM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 13
What you are proposing sounds like the very first proposed amendment to the Constitution.…
Posted by Tacoma Traveler on January 1, 2013 at 5:48 PM · Report this
Gerrymandering is also why we are so polarized. The lopsided districts means that the extreme candidates make it through the primary. A simple solution is to require that each district is a polygon of no more than six sides and one side maybe a natural border such as a river.
Posted by SeattleBrad on January 1, 2013 at 6:13 PM · Report this
If congressional districts aligned with zip codes (and if zip codes were all approximately the same population) it would be about 15 minutes before they went gerrymandered. In any case congress seems hell bent on destroying the postal service so zip codes may not

I like the bigger congress idea. The physical size of the chamber isn't even a big problem. The British parliaments house can't hold everybody and they've managed to get by for a long long time. I do wonder how 800 plus could get anything done though.

Posted by david on January 1, 2013 at 6:51 PM · Report this
Gerrymandering is also at the root of Republican-backed proposals in several states to switch to a Maine-style electoral vote apportionment system (by majority of each district, and the other two by the majority in the state).
Posted by Gerald Fnord on January 1, 2013 at 7:21 PM · Report this
Goldy, there's a huge difference between non-partisan and bi-partisan! Our state redistricting process is bi-partisan, and the result is total gerrymandering in favor of incumbents of both parties.

I hear that California has adopted non-partisan redistricting, but I've seen nothing about how it works and what the results were. (Both of our states, alas, have the atrocious top-two primary which freezes out third parties and sets up many intra-party battles in November elections. Republicans in my legislative district could choose only between two liberal Democrats last November, essentially leaving them with no choice at all.)
Posted by Citizen R on January 1, 2013 at 7:36 PM · Report this
lauramae 19
Haven't 3 states tried to deal with the gerrymander issue? However, a larger House could be one way to avoid the concentration of power the way we see it today. For example, Eric Cantor has only one responsibility: to represent his 7th Congressional district in Virginia. I looked at the statistics of that district. The average house is worth $188,000. The income, and demographics of the district would indicate that they do not benefit from his presence in Congress. And his naked ambition to replace Boehner indicates that he could give two shits about his district. It's about power.

So if the caucus is larger, then there are fewer ways that just a few knuckleheads can grab power and muscle the country to its knees---callously with no regard for the actual nation.

We need our own IDLE NO MORE as it pertains to these fuckheads.

Posted by lauramae on January 1, 2013 at 7:42 PM · Report this
We could divvy up the house by states, and then within the states divvy up the seats by voter age. These days, most 20 year olds have more in common, no matter where they live, than the current geographic setup. Except for a couple states with very few representatives of their own ( I'm looking at you, North Dakota ), we could divvy up the voting age population by decade, and let the 18-28 year olds actually vote for a rep that would represent their interests, instead of almost all of them focusing on issues benefiting the elderly and middle aged folks.
Posted by stattenf on January 1, 2013 at 7:57 PM · Report this

One way to counter this political bickering would be to introduce a policy of direct democracy into the houses of both congress. If both parties cannot come to an agreement, on a major political issue that affects the American people, then the bill in question, should be put forward for the American people to decide, and for the American people to have their say.
So for example on the issue of tax increases on the wealthy, if both parties cannot come to an agreement on whether taxes should or shouldn't be raised on the wealthy, then this bill should be put forward to the American people, and if the Americans were to vote in favour of Obama's bill, a tax increase on the rich, then the bill would pass and become law. If the bill didn't receive a majority vote from the people, then obviously it wouldn't pass, and that would be the end of it.…
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on January 1, 2013 at 8:32 PM · Report this
rob! 22
@17 is right on the money. It's very important that everyone understand that this is the Republicans' specific response to the "Urban Archipelago" that delivered the White House for Obama in '08 and '12 but is about to come unraveled; their strategy is as Goldy described it above, but he doesn't go anywhere near far enough (I'm glad he picked it up, though, because it seems like nobody checks SlogTips from about mid-December to mid-January). Study up:

Start with Maddow on Dec. 12th (you'll think you're watching the wrong clip because she rabbits on for three and a half minutes about telemedicine in Michigan, but after that you'll see why):…

Print articles that will illustrate the scope of the problem:……

Posted by rob! on January 1, 2013 at 8:52 PM · Report this
rob! 23
(I should say I don't think smaller Congressional districts/more representatives as Goldy advocates are the answer; it won't really limit the nearly unlimited possibilities of gerrymandering, for one. The best thing Dems can do is wake the fuck up during off-year elections, and ESPECIALLY for the elections that coincide with the decennial census. The Republicans won big in the statehouses in 2010 while Dems snoozed, and consequently controlled redistricting in the many states where the majority has that power.)
Posted by rob! on January 1, 2013 at 9:04 PM · Report this
If we double the number of representatives, can we halve their pay/perks?
Posted by randoma on January 1, 2013 at 9:14 PM · Report this
I've been arguing for this solution for about 20 years. Glad to see it catching on. The founders were sorta smart and thoughtful people. Not perfect, but pretty damn good. They had small House districts for a reason. And it wasn't just because the US population was less.
Posted by Mike Silva on January 1, 2013 at 9:38 PM · Report this
"we could divvy up the voting age population by decade, and let the 18-28 year olds actually vote for a rep that would represent their interests, instead of almost all of them focusing on issues benefiting the elderly and middle aged folks."

Please tell me what the "interests" of 18-28-year-olds are. Besides cheaper higher education.
Posted by sarah70 on January 1, 2013 at 9:44 PM · Report this
@1, Back when I was a member of the idle unemployed, loafing around mooching off Real Americaâ„¢, I had difficulty resolving a problem with the state unemployment office. I reached out to my state rep's office for help. Not only did they help fix things, I got a follow up call from the representative himself and his personal cellphone number in case I had any further problems. Now that's what I call service!
Posted by Corydon on January 1, 2013 at 9:59 PM · Report this
Can we simply switch to a party proportional representation by each state? Skip the whole redistricting mess altogether while giving minority opinions better chance to be heard?
Posted by varezhka on January 1, 2013 at 11:32 PM · Report this
@18: Yes, we do have non-partisan districts now! And I'm very happy with them. Even though the state is extremely Democratic, population-wise, for years and years the districts were gerrymandered in such a way that the Republican caucus could always block anything that required a 2/3 vote (which in California is unfortunately a lot of things). With the new districts, Democrats now have supermajorities in both state houses.

More to the point, the districts actually make sense when you look at them. And the way the system works, if the districts REALLY look like bullshit, we can reject them and make the committee start over. It's nice.
Posted by alguna_rubia on January 2, 2013 at 1:31 AM · Report this
It would not be very difficult to write a computer algorithm that would create districts based solely on geographic proximity and population density. But this type of reform, along with filibuster reform will NEVER happen because the party out of power will always dream of using these practices in their own favor if and when they get back in power.
Posted by Ziggy66 on January 2, 2013 at 4:02 AM · Report this
@26 Here are a few:

1 Jobs--the unemployment rate for recent college graduates is quite high.

2. Reproductive freedom, since they are both fertile and sexually active.

3. Foreign policy, because Congress starts the wars, but people 18-26 actually fight them.

4. Marriage equality, since young people support it as ferverently as old people oppose it.

5. And, by the way, affordable education is nothing to sneeze at.
Posted by Clayton on January 2, 2013 at 6:17 AM · Report this
6. Making sure that when/if entitlements are reformed, young people don't get screwed.

7. Climate change, since we will actually live it
Posted by wxPDX on January 2, 2013 at 8:09 AM · Report this
The only sensible way to prevent gerrymandering is to just write a damn computer program that fairly divides up districts. There is absolutely no excuse for humans to be in the loop for a task of this sort.
Posted by drewm1980 on January 2, 2013 at 10:41 AM · Report this
Max Solomon 34
there isn't enough room on the house floor for all those reps, so it can't work. GOP congress until 2022, get used to the dysfunction.
Posted by Max Solomon on January 2, 2013 at 10:56 AM · Report this
prompt 35
I'd rather see some engineers or mathematicians come up with a map of districts without giving them any prior knowledge of party preference. Then raise the threshold of changing those districts to 2/3, and Congress never gets to draw the borders themselves ever.
Posted by prompt on January 4, 2013 at 11:44 AM · Report this

Add a comment

Commenting on this item is available only to registered commenters.

All contents © Index Newspapers, LLC
1535 11th Ave (Third Floor), Seattle, WA 98122
Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Takedown Policy