Homeopathic democracy

Before George Washington became president, he presided over the Philadelphia Convention at which the U.S. Constitution was drafted. Throughout the entire proceedings — which had its fair share of passionate disputes — Washington spoke up exactly once on an issue under debate. The proposed size of the U.S. House of Representatives was too small, he said. It would have meant one congressman for every 40,000 citizens. He insisted that one per 30,000 would produce a better, more responsive democracy, and so the change was made.

Within thirty years, as new states were admitted and the population grew, the ratio had grown to the level against which Washington had argued: 40,000 citizens per congressman. Four decades later and it more than tripled: 127,000 to 1. By this time the population of the country had grown from under two million to over 31 million, and the House of Representatives had gone from a cozy 65 members to a rowdy 241.

In 1912 the House of Representatives swelled to 435 members — roughly one for every 212,000 citizens — and there it was capped by legislation in 1929, by which time the ratio was more than 280,000 to 1.

If we had maintained that ratio, today the House would have 1,093 members. If we had maintained Washington’s ratio, today it would have 10,291 members. As it is we’re stuck with 435 — fewer than one congressperson for every 700,000 people. Some U.S. citizens have proportionally more Senate representation than House representation.

What was the cry of the Boston rioters in 1773?1 “No taxation without representation.” What would they have said about taxation with just a teensy amount of representation? No wonder our democracy is presently working about as well as a course of Oscillococcinum (the flu remedy so dilute that one dose contains none of its so-called active ingredients).

A ten thousand member Congress would probably be unmanageable. But a nation of three hundred million is (I think we can conclude from current events) ungovernable by a legislature so relatively small. Perhaps it’s time to reconstitute our national government. Here’s one idea off the top of my head for bringing representation closer to the people: add a level of hierarchy between the state and federal levels, according to the ten regions of American politics.

  1. No evocation of the modern day Tea Party is intended. []

One thought on “Homeopathic democracy

  1. nsb

    I’m not convinced that the number of people per representative is that important. The real problem is district-based voting, made worse by gerrymandering. A much more democratic approach would be fully proportional elections, with any party that gets some minimum percentage of votes getting a proportional number of seats in parliament. Israel has this, and has never been without representatives in the Parliament who are Arabs opposed to the existence of the state. If the US had proportional representation in the 1950’s we would have had 2 Communists in the Senate and 4 or 5 in the House — and even more socialists!

Leave a Reply