Op-Ed: America Needs A Larger Congress

Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 by arguing for smaller government. But Northwestern University's Jacqueline Stevens says the House itself is too small, and that it's time to add more representatives to the legislative body.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, "The Opinion Page." Tomorrow night, President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress for his State of the Union address. That includes 435 members of the House of Representatives, one for about every 700,000 of us. That ratio used to be a lot smaller. While the population of the United States continues to grow, the number of representatives in the House has not changed since 1912.

Over the weekend, an op-ed in the New York Times argued it's high time to expand it again. More representatives from smaller districts would enlist more citizen legislators and reduce the influence of special interests, and end the two-party system - was the argument.

Do you feel represented enough by your congressman or woman? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from her office at Northwestern University is Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science, and co-author of the op-ed piece with NYU professor Dalton Conley.

Nice to have you with us today.

Professor JACQUELINE STEVENS (Department of Political Science, Northwestern University): Hi, nice to be with you.

CONAN: And isn't the size of congressional districts - or the number of people represented by members of Congress - isn't that in the Constitution?

Prof. STEVENS: Well, no. As you mentioned at the beginning, the requirement in the Constitution simply states that there can be no more than one member for every 30,000 inhabitants in the United States. And at this point, we're up to one for - as you mentioned - every 700,000 inhabitants in the United States.

CONAN: Thirty thousand is about the size of a legislative district in the state of New York.

Prof. STEVENS: That's about right. And so you are - the argument that professor Conley and I make is that that's a good size for our congressional districts, and will allow for more members, more representation and, especially important, more citizen control and oversight of federal agencies.

CONAN: So how - you're arguing 30,000 is a good number as opposed to 700. That's a lot of new members of Congress.

Prof. STEVENS: Well, 30,000 is the number that's in the Constitution for the citizens that were represented in 1787 who were part of the electorate. In fact, the inhabitants who were elected per member were 60,000 because women couldn't vote, and slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment. We're not saying that there's, you know, it has to be a fixed number of one per every 30,000. But we're using that number to encourage discussion, given the vast disparity between that number and what we have now.

CONAN: So how often was it changed before, as you suggest, the last change in 1912?

Prof. STEVENS: Well, the require - the Constitution requires the census for the purpose of reapportioning Congress. And that reapportionment, we now understand, is part of moving members around, and we talk about the distribution from - you know - blue states to red states, and so forth.

But until 1910, Congress also used the census to regularly increase the size of the membership. So the first Congress that met in 1787 had 65 members. After the 1790 census, that went up. And it went up every 10 years, fairly regularly, until 1910. And the number that we have now is the number that was set following the legislation that was passed in 1910.

CONAN: There have been more than a few states admitted to the Union since 1910.

Prof. STEVENS: That's correct. The number of seats was redistributed among the additional states. It went up temporarily to 437 members -briefly - when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted because the Constitution also requires that each state have a minimum of one representative. So it went up briefly to 437 before reverting back to 435.

CONAN: And...

Prof. STEVENS: The one exemption to the reapportionment - this is, interestingly enough, the period at which the changes stopped - was following the 1920 census. After the 1920 census was taken, the results indicated for the first time that more people were living in urban than rural areas. And the members actually violated the requirement of the Constitution to reapportion within three years of the census and simply failed to do so, because there was a lot of concern - mostly on the part of nativists - that so-called foreigners would be, you know, seizing control of the United States government. And so they simply, you know, violated that requirement of the Constitution.

CONAN: Foreigners meaning Germans, Italians, Irish...

Prof. STEVENS: Meaning recent immigrants into the United States who were, you know, presumably voting members of the population and therefore, were causing some consternation among the current representatives.

CONAN: Well, if 435 is not enough, and if one per 30,000 is probably too many, what's a reasonable number, do you think?

Prof. STEVENS: Well, you know, it's not obvious that there's any problem, actually, with even one per every 30,000. The numbers that we throw out in the piece are 1,500 if we were to return to the level that people had in 1912.

CONAN: That's about one - well, I can't do the math that quickly in my head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STEVENS: Right. That's about one for every 200,000 people.

CONAN: OK.

Prof. STEVENS: And just to give, you know, the audience a sense of the -where the United States fits in the context of other representative democracies, Canada right now has a population of 33 million people. And they have 308 members in their parliament, which works out to one for every 190 sorry, one for every 109,000 inhabitants. England has a population of 61 million people, with 650 members in their parliament. And that's actually one for every 78,000 inhabitants.

CONAN: And you also argue that this would have a number of beneficial effects - that in fact, it would encourage more citizen legislators. Why do you think that?

Prof. STEVENS: Well, the smaller the size of the district, the easier it is for people to campaign on the basis of, you know, personal networks and face-to-face contacts. And the less reliant people would be on money in order to reach larger audiences.

So if you had, you know, a district that was - say, you know, somewhere between 30 and 60,000 people, that's the size of a large university campus - or as you were mentioning, you know, a legislative district for a state assembly. And it's fairly easy for people to establish personal contacts. So that would mean that there would be less reliance on people having to depend on lobbyists and other narrow, special interests for financial contributions in order to be elected.

CONAN: To take out TV advertising and that sort of thing.

Prof. STEVENS: Exactly.

CONAN: And you also say it would be the end of the two-party monopoly.

Prof. STEVENS: Well, yes. I mean, if you think about the implications of smaller districts, there - that means that there are more - there's a possibility that you could have - say, you know, a Green Party member from Cambridge; a Libertarian from, you know, a portion of Orange County. And there would be more, you know, representation of different points of view - something that I think is desired by various constituencies across the political spectrum.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Jacqueline Stevens is with us on "The Opinion Page" this week; a professor of political science at Northeastern - excuse me, Northwestern University.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STEVENS: That's right, that's right - along with my colleague Dalton Conley, from New York University.

CONAN: And their opinion is that the House of Representatives ought to be expanded considerably. And they argue it would have any number of beneficial effects. Do you feel represented properly or underrepresented: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Let's start with Phil(ph), Phil with us from Cincinnati.

PHIL (Caller): Thanks, Neal. Yeah. I just had a couple, quick points to make, and I do feel underrepresented. But I think there's two bigger issues, systemic issues at play here. And that's the influence of gerrymandering and special interests.

You know, even if you increase the number of representatives, which would create - you know - more representatives that might, you know, have third parties like the Green Party or the Libertarians. The problem is, you're still going to have these hyperpartisan districts, and I think that we see that going on. And the other problem is, without fixing campaign finance, you might have more members of the House of Representatives, but you still have an equal opportunity for them to be beholden to the special interests, even if there's less money involved in each, individual race. I think that without public financing, we still run into that problem.

CONAN: All right. Why don't we take this one at a time. Jacqueline Stevens, gerrymandering, district lines are drawn up by state legislatures, which are often highly partisan in that process.

Prof. STEVENS: Right. Well, I mean, it's easy to be - to talk about partisanship in a two-party system, where it's just one or other. But once you have smaller districts, even if gerrymandering is a possibility and you get the Libertarians in on it and the Socialists in on it, and the Green Parties in on it, the fact that you'd have more diversity would still mean more representation. So I think it actually would diminish that problem.

Whereas, under the current gerrymandering - you know, under the current system, gerrymandering means that people have their narrow interests completely ignored because they're subsumed into these larger districts.

CONAN: And Phil's other point about special interests: If there are more but smaller congressional districts, wouldn't the price necessarily -any individual member of Congress might be less influential, but might be cheaper to buy.

Prof. STEVENS: Well, I mean, I'm not quite sure what the evidence of that would be. If you have a smaller district, it would seem to follow that there would be less reliance on money. I mean, we do have to, you know, rely on elections and accountability for our electorates. And so it's not clear that - and actually, the evidence from political science would suggest that just having a lot of money doesn't buy you an election.

And in fact, in our recent cycle, we've seen a number of candidates who are absolutely the richest people, and they lose. So I'm not quite sure that there's the evidence for that argument. That's not to say that public financing is a terrible idea. But I don't know that that would be the argument for it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph), and Chris calling from Miami.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I think this is a terrible idea. We spend $20 billion, give or take a billion here or there, on the operation of the Congress as it is. We spend $4 billion on elections. I don't think anyone out here in mainstream America really thinks more government is the idea that we're looking for. I think the entire reason that the Tea Party did so well was that people want less government.

Prof. STEVENS: I'm so glad you raise this point. Well, I think that if you're concerned about high expenditures on the part of the federal government, you should actually love this idea, not hate it. The reason that I say this is that a lot of the expenditures that you're referring specifically on Congress, would be for congressional staff. And what we're proposing is that members of Congress take on the responsibilities currently undertaken by unaccountable staffs who are appointed bureaucrats.

There's two kinds of benefits to that. The first is that there's more direct control by people who are accountable to their constituents. And the second is that that control would mean better oversight over the vastly increased federal government. I'm sorry, go ahead.

CHRIS: But there's no impetus for that to happen. The driving force is always, every congressman wants staffers. There's benefits for lobbyists and for knowledge outside. There's no reason to expect that, you know, if you had 3,000 congressmen, that they each wouldn't, over time, accrete their own staff members, accrete their own additional. We don't have -show any history, over the last 200 years of government, of showing government getting smaller. It's always a one-sided direction of government getting larger.

Prof. STEVENS: Well, I don't think that's exactly true. I mean, you know, up until the 1930s, the typical congressional staff was one or two people. And so it's true that in the 1940s, they increased the size of their staff, but that was actually following the increase in the size of the federal government.

The last time there was a serious discussion about increasing the size of the House of Representatives this was in the late 1920s - the committee actually contemplated increasing the size to 485. And the reason for that was the increasing size of the federal government. And the purpose of increasing the size of Congress was to increase control of that.

If you look at the extent of, you know, corruption and fraud and so forth that's committed in, you know, by contractors with the federal government, it would seem that one would find it very cost-effective to have people who are incentivized by accountability to their constituents, to directly intercede in the oversight and hold people's feet to the fire as opposed to, you know, staff members who, as we've seen, have not been so successful in doing that.

CONAN: You could find a link to the op-ed by Jacqueline Stevens and the her co-author, Dalton Conley, at our website. Go to npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Buzz(ph), and Buzz with us from Basalt in Colorado.

BUZZ (Caller): Thank you so much. By the way, it's amazing this woman is thought of as a, by NPR, as a - expert. States that discourage illegal immigration lose representation. The Constitution says every person will be counted so every time they count an illegal - like in California - or even a regular immigrant, like in California, other states lose their representation. It's a travesty, and it's ridiculous. And I would like to hear what she has to say.

Prof. STEVENS: I'm not quite how this is a question about the distribution of members of Congress, or the size. It seems that this particular caller would have a problem with the apportionment regardless of the size. If there were 100 members of Congress, that point would be the same one.

I mean, I have other disagreements about the characterization of undocumented people living in the United States and, you know, the relevance - sorry, their ability to have representation, but I'm not quite sure that that's on point for this particular conversation.

CONAN: There is, however, an interesting point which you do raise in the piece, that the only people who can authorize this in other words, it does not require a constitutional amendment to do it; it requires a vote by members of Congress to reduce their influence.

Prof. STEVENS: Right - and as has occurred historically every 10 years, until 1910. So it's not without precedent, but it would require...

CONAN: It's beyond the living memory, let's put it that way.

Prof. STEVENS: There you go. Right. And so that would be that is the main obstacle. It would require grassroot mobilization and which would begin with the awareness of this possibility in order to pressure Congress to change the law. But just to be clear, as you - you know, mentioned in the opening segment, this is merely a law. It's a statute just like the, you know, federal requirements for the, you know, national highway speed limits. And it can be changed with a majority of both the House and the Senate.

CONAN: And the president's signature.

Prof. STEVENS: And the president's signature, yes.

CONAN: Jacqueline Stevens, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Prof. STEVENS: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Jacqueline Stevens is a professor of political science at Northwestern University; co-author of a New York Time's op-ed with NYU professor Dalton Conley, on expansion of the House of Representatives. Professor Stevens joined us from her office in Chicago.

Again, you can find a link to that piece at our website. That's at npr.org.

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