Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

Would Two Simple Changes Fix Congress?

Most Americans hold a dim view of their government, and for various reasons. The perceived ineffectiveness of Congress is a good example. The main job of our Senators and Representatives, it seems, is simply to keep their jobs—to get themselves re-elected. Because of the partisan gridlock in Congress, they get little else done.

I can make several points about how Congress currently doesn’t work well because it cannot solve serious problems, but one contributing problem is how Representatives are elected. The U.S. Constitution mandates a decennial census that apportions seats in the House of Representatives based on population. Drawing of districts based on apportionment has led to gerrymandering, or legislators meticulously drawing district boundaries so their party gains an unfair advantage. This is the practice of choosing voters.

A relatively simple (if not easy) way to improve this process is to allow states to change from single-member districts to at-large districts, where each member represents the whole state. One snag with this idea is the 1967 law prohibiting at-large or multi-member districts. This law is another racist relic from the southern states and repealing it would be a first step.

A criticism of that solution would be that that state-wide districts would be unwieldy, but they already exist in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming. Those are large states, geographically speaking.

In practice, the next step would be to mandate at-large or multi-member districts, which would then make redistricting fights and court battles unneeded. Gerrymandering would be history.

In theory, at-large districts would decrease partisanship. Candidates would need to appeal to the most people statewide, not just the voters they were able to choose through gerrymandering their districts. A state like Colorado is a good example, with most Democrats representing the Denver area, and Republicans representing the less populated/non-urban areas. With the change to at-large districts, each person’s vote counts the same wherever they live in a state.

Politicians and the two major political parties have proven adept, however, at skirting rules for partisan advantage, so I don’t know if this advantage would actually materialize. But the sclerotic nature of Congress is a good argument for substantial structural change.

Another improvement would be increasing the number of U.S. Representatives. Because of current law (which could be changed), the House is capped at 435 seats. As the U.S. population is growing, the cap means that each U.S. Representative tends to gain constituents over time, and states that are growing take Representatives from those are are stagnant or shrinking. This is not ideal, and there’s no compelling reason to maintain the cap at 435 members, where it’s been limited since 1929.

What’s the ideal number of representatives? I don’t know but right now each one represents something like 700,000 people, on average. Some states are substantially higher. Maybe that’s fine, but it seems like a better idea that the total number should grow with population. What if there were 500,000 people per representative? Then each person’s vote in each state counts roughly the same across the country.

Some people will argue a larger body is too cumbersome. This is nonsense, as Representatives have no compelling reasons to all be together in one room together anymore. Technology tools are already in use to enable effective communication among people spread out world wide.

At the founding of this country and for more than a century afterwards, life didn’t change that much as the population grew. The process of governing by gathering made sense, as in that traditional “New England town hall” format.

That format no longer makes sense. Getting all Representatives together in a room is of limited value, as each won’t have the opportunity to or need to meet other members face to face. It makes more sense to work remotely in different offices and gather in rotating groups for meetings. All these details can be worked out in the House as they have been in business and education. That business “on the floor” is mostly for show, anyway, and just gives the blowhards their ego-boosting platform.

The title of this piece, by the way, is tongue in cheek. Congress and the U.S. government need more than a couple tweaks, but we need to start somewhere.

What do you think?

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