Monday, January 24, 2011

Some Bad Reasons to Expand the House

Yesterday, Dalton Conley and Jacqueline Stevens used an op-ed in the NY Times (1) to support increasing the number of seats in the US House of Representatives.  Because the House has not expanded in proportion to population growth, they write, “Americans today are numerically the worst-represented group of citizens in the country’s history.”  This has supposedly led to Members who have been overtaken by special interests and who have lost touch with the public.

While there may be good reason to expand the number of seats in the House, you will not find many of those reasons in this article.  Here, then, are a few criticisms of the analysis provided by Conley and Stevens.

1. The House first convened in 1789, not 1787 (the Constitutional Convention was in 1787, with ratification in 1788).  Obviously this does not color their argument beyond being a peculiar oversight.

2. Diluting represenational power in the House by increasing the number of Representatives would seem to make the two Senators from each state all the more powerful.  Not only would this increase the relative power of the Senators from within the same state delegation as their House colleagues, it would also increase the relative power of Senators over Representatives generally, as the total size of the Senate would remain constant even as the House expanded.  Keeping the size of the Senate constant in such a scenario would only seem to exacerbate the “extraordinary inequality in the worth of the suffrage” that Robert Dahl sees in the Senate already (2).

3. Increasing the number of seats does not necessarily decrease the power of “special interest” money in election.  Viewed cynically, it may just mean that more seats are available to influence.  The increased number of seats may even make such influence cheaper to court.  While a citizen’s political power--the power of her vote--may be greater when she’s 1 in 30,000 than when she’s 1 in 700,000, presumably much the same would be true about the relative political power of a dollar given similar ratios.

4. The authors claim, implausibly, that expanding representation would lead to “fewer lifers,” i.e., politicians who continue to run for and win re-election.  However it remains unexplained why this would be beneficial for a democracy.  Indeed, persuasive arguments can certainly be made for the value of retaining those with legislative and political experience.

5. The authors don’t explain why “unaccountable” staffers are a democratic pox, nor why there would be significantly fewer were the size of the House to change.  It is just as plausible to assume that an increase in the size of the House would tend to increase the total number of staffers--a development that would undermine their argument.

6.  If a phone call from a Member of the House is more effective than a request from committee staff, as the authors unilaterally assert, then that power may be commensurately diminished by the rise in the number of Members now able to make such calls.  Note, also, how this situation may again tend to increase the power of Senators.

Now, comprehensive treatises ought not be expected in the op-ed pages of the New York Times--or Analytic Politics, for that matter--so perhaps all of these issues may be adequately addressed in a less condensed format.  Indeed, increasing representation does retain some intuitive appeal, however this appeal is not likely to stem from the arguments put forth by Conley and Stevens.

(1) Conley, Dalton and Jacqueline Stevens. “Build a Bigger House.” The New York Times. January 23, 2011.
(2) Dahl, Robert. “How Democratic is the US Constitution?” New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. 50.

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