May 05, 2003


Steven Den Beste has a post about the European Parliament and the number of members it has. He starts with the US House of Representatives:

The Senate of the US has two members for every state. That's right out of the Constitution. But there's no direct guidance for how big the House should be, except for a ceiling of no more than one Representative for every 30,000 citizens, which would mean about 9300 Representatives.

Obviously we don't have that many, and the reason is that quite a while ago it was recognized that as the chamber became larger it also became more unwieldy, and so the House itself capped its numbers at 435. What if it got larger?

It is certainly true that after a certain point, individual members have almost no real power in such a body. Certainly, there are issues that arise from having a small group of leaders in charge of all of the committee assignments, agenda and so forth. As Steven points out, these issues already arise in the House, at 435 members. I'm not sure, however, that this is really a problem.

The whole purpose of the House of Representatives is to give individual citizens a voice in government. The House's powers include, for example, the requirement that all tax bills originate in the House. The House has the sole power to impeach officers of the government. The primary method for a Representative to influence the law is by his vote. As a practical matter, the direction and agenda of the House is set by the Speaker and his officers. This is true even with the current size of 435 Representatives.

While the individual Representative's power decreases as the number of Representatives increases, the power of the individual citizen increases as the number of Representatives increases. This is because a Representative is representing few people. Texas, where I live, has 21,779,893 residents, according to the 2002 census estimates. Texas has 32 Representatives. That means that my Representative also has 680620 other citizens to represent. What are the odds of my influencing Kay Granger's vote? Now, if there were only 29999 other people competing for attention, I'd have more of an ability to influence that vote, and thus more individual power in government. Indeed, judging by the precinct map, I'd be able to walk to most of the people represented along with me. (I live in the very Northeast corner of the 12th district.)

Beyond having more influence over my Representative, I would have a chance of actually knowing the Elector who represents me. This would put pressure on the State (because I'd want this power, and so would a lot of other voters) to abandon winner-take-all electoral voting and replace it with more local selection of electors. In that case, the Electoral College could actually function the way it was meant to, aggregating the votes of small regions to select people of honor who could interview the Presidential candidates in great detail, and select the best candidate for President. This would act to temper the passions of the moment, and replace them with a longer-term view.

The levels of corruption and vote trading would decline, because it would be much, much harder to influence the House by influencing a few of its members. Alternative parties would be strengthened, because it would be easier for them to actually get people elected. In a district with almost 700000 people, an alternative party has no chance. In a district wtih 30000 people, there is a good chance that someone from a minor party could win an election. This would increase the diversity of the House, which would strengthen the laws by bringing in a more diverse set of viewpoints.

All in all, I'd say that having more Representatives is preferable to having fewer.

Posted by Jeff at May 5, 2003 09:38 AM | Link Cosmos

"Now, if there were only 29999 other people competing for attention, I'd have more of an ability to influence that vote, and thus more individual power in government."

You have more influence over that REPRESENTATIVE, but that representative now also has proportionally less influence in the legislative body. So it would seem to me that your net power gain is zero.

Posted by: Abraham Liebsch on May 6, 2003 05:27 PM

Actually, it doesn't really work out that way. What you have to focus on is the chance that your individual action will tip the balance of a vote. Assuming that each person expresses his opinion to his Representative, and the Representative votes with the plurality in his district, you get something like the Electoral College. (Obviously, it doesn't really work out this way, as the Representative will have his own ideological biases, and not everyone will express their opinion, but the analogy is still useful.) Here is an analysis of electoral voting, which shows how vote aggregation works to magnify the input of an individual. A similar thing happens with Congressional voting.

In the House, some members are elected by wide margins, and their vote is fairly predictable on any given issue. Others, who have a narrower margin to be reelected, have to court specific groups within their district in order to be reelected, and the main way of courting these groups is by voting the way they want. The smaller the number of voters there are for any given Representative, the fewer people he has to please, and thus the more he will work to please an individual voter. If nothing else, smaller numbers of voters would give more of a chance of that Representative actually listening to a given (not rich and not politically-connected) voter.

Any given vote in the House could reach the point where one more Representative could change his vote, and thus change the outcome of that vote. A vote in which a large majority votes on one side pretty much ignores all minority opinions in play. But a vote which goes down to a single vote magnifies the influence of opinions in any given district whose Representative is in play. If I am one of 700000 people in such a district, I'm shouted down by the majority (assuming I am not in the majority). If I am one of 30000, I have a good chance of getting heard, and thus of influencing that vote.

Aggregation is good, and the further down it is driven (within reason - one person one vote obviously doesn't work to maximize the influence of minorities), the more likely it is that your opinion will make a difference.

Posted by: Jeff on May 6, 2003 09:16 PM

I see your point, but there must be some kind of limit to the beneficial effects? For example, consider the logical extreme of your position - each citizen is his own representative and gets a vote in the House. Here it would seem that any gains in influence have once again been lost.

So considering a spectrum where, on one end, one representative represents everybody, and on the other end, one representative represents zero people (himself only) - is there a mathematical or logical way to determine what the optimum proportionality is?

Posted by: Abraham Liebsch on May 7, 2003 11:37 AM

I think that the solution is rather simple - devolve more power to the states where individual citizens have a reasonable chance of knowing and influencing their representatives.

Posted by: Nordic on May 7, 2003 12:19 PM
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