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Single Federal Code Redux Part Two: Using Congress to safeguard our liberties

By Bruce Walker
web posted January 27, 2003

My last article attempted to explain why I feel that the desirable goal of returning real sovereignty to state governments is probably not realistic, and my next article will describe a political action plan which might make this improbable, but beneficial, goal achievable.

Now, as promised in my last article, I set forth a plan in which the benefits of a single federal code, with its preemption of federal and state judicial power, could be protected from corrosion by liberal elitists. There are several reasons why the good intentions in the Constitution, which are a reflection of greater principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, have fallen apart over time.

The people who inhabit the government ought to be as closely intertwined as possible with the people who are governed. This does not mean Athenian direct democracy, but it means more like the Tribunes of Rome, who were required to live near the people and to see the people when complaints arose.

Well intentioned liberals assume that better management and more information can replace face to face discussions with the governed, but bad government is not the consequence of bad management; it is the consequence of government immune to the marketplace of social and cultural pressures.

Conservatives understand that there is a market which governs all our interactions, but we often forget that this market means represents more than economic factors. Social, cultural, moral and values are a critical part of the marketplace of interactions.

Why do we see Hollywood churn out hateful films that lose money? Hollywood elites care more about what their friends say than how much money they make. What do the rich so often support socialist politics? Because they need social acceptance more than the extra money.

The remedy is to move government physically back to the people of flyover country. This is more than just a geographical change, but also a social change from a government of the people concerned about rich and insulated aristocrats to a government concerned about thoughtful and responsible middle class men and women.

Those who govern America should be those with the strongest interest in good, simple, cheap and effective government which has several clear goals - national defense, low crime rates, good basic government services - and which is wary of any new scheme to solve "problems" with new government actions.

The Constitution limits many actions that would reduce the distance of government from our lives. The President is elected for a four year term and he can only be in one place at once. The Senate is composed of two senators per state, and although the composition of states themselves is theoretically subject to change, the practical problems in terms of state law and judicial precedent would be vast in increasing the number of states. The Supreme Court is famously immune from the pressures of the governed.

There is one part of the federal government, however, which was always intended to be close to the people - the House of Representatives. The Constitution allows each of the two Houses of Congress to set its own rules, and it sets only one limit on the size of the House of Representatives: there may be no more than one member for every thirty thousand people.

This gives an idea of how close the Founding Fathers felt that the House of Representatives should be to the people. Is there any good reason why congressmen should be more remote from the people today than the Constitution requires? It is an interesting, but often forgotten, historical fact that the size of House of Representatives increased in rough proportion to the size of the population up until the early Twentieth Century.

Only federal statute sets the size of the House of Representatives at the arbitrary figure of 435 members. This almost guarantees that those federal officers intended to be closest to the people have constituencies of six hundred thousand people, and that the average congressman is surrounded by a phalanx of aides, staffers, and constituent service employees which largely protect him from the real world.

The House of Representatives is easily the most representative part of the federal government, and most House members take this part of their job quite seriously. America has grown much too big, however, for the best intentioned House member to "understand" a constituency not much smaller than the entire United States of America was when the Constitution was adopted.

The solution is to increase the size of the House of Representatives to its constitutional limit of thirty thousand people for congressman, which would give the average House member a constituency roughly the size of a medium sized town in flyover country...and to amend the Rules of the House of Representatives so that votes, motions, debates and other parliamentary activities can only take place while the House member is physically in his district.

Reduce the staff and space of the House member's Washington office, which would only be used for ceremonial occasions, to a modest office with a secretary, and provide two or three home district staff members. Technology would make it very easy for virtually all the business which the House needs to conduct to be done from eight thousand different offices scattered around America.

These House members would live in real America. They would hear unvarnished truth from small businessmen, nurses, local city councilmen, Boy Scout troops, building contractors and a hundred other types of groups who could explain what government was doing to their lives. If the single federal code had preempted state and local law, this congressman could actually do something to fix the problem - provided that it was a general problem that thousands of other congressmen were hearing about as well.

Congressmen with a district population of thirty thousand would have an actual voting population of about four thousand people. This would make it very easy for a challenger using only a sympathetic ear and lots of shoe leather to unseat a congressman foolish ignore to ignore the real wishes of his constituents. Campaign money would become as irrelevant as what the national press or even the statewide press thought.

Conducting all parliamentary activities on the internet would also make it very easy for hundreds of constituents to know the very day that their congressman had taken a position contrary to his campaign pledges. This would be a body almost completely immune from the blandishments of Washington elites and Hollywood flatterers.

Beyond simply requiring that the House conduct its business publically and from flyover country, the House should amend its rules so that changes are very difficult. Require by rule a four fifths majority before any change in the single federal code, any tax increase or any increase in a line item of federal expenditure greater than the prior federal fiscal year.

This would not stop nearly all increases in taxes and spending or changes in law unless there was a genuine, grass roots and overwhelming popular support. Backroom machinations and closet lobbying would be very difficult. Stability would be easy to maintain and change would be hard, and this would apply not only to the single federal code but also to the federal budget.

If four fifths of the House of Representatives had to agree before the appropriation to any federal expenditure item which was greater than the prior fiscal year, then it would be very easy to simply continue spending at the same levels each year and it would be very hard to gain a powerful consensus to increase federal spending in any area. If the federal budget was actually frozen for two or three years, budgetary surpluses would grow so vast that either the federal debt would be reduced dramatically or pressure for tax cuts would grow to irresistible levels. Both would good.

Such a huge and dispersed House of Representatives would not have any more clout on paper than the House of Representatives does now, but such a large and responsive body could exert enormous political pressure when change was needed. What if a bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 8,231 to 149? Would the Senate and President let it die?

What if the House passed resolutions interpreting the meaning of the Constitution in ways directly contrary to the Supreme Court? These resolutions would be non-binding, but they would carry enormous political authority - easily trumping the authority of the Supreme Court. What if the House of Representatives impeaches three justices of the Supreme Court by a vote of 7,981 to 380 who ignored this interpretation of the House of Representatives? How seriously would people consider federal court decisions so sharply in conflict with the clear will of the governed?

Many of my conservative brethren will doubtless worry about increasing the size of congressional staff and cost - although this could and should be limited by providing much fewer perks, staff and money per House member than before - but the is not House staff members, who are probably the most responsive and sympathetic members of the entire federal government, but untouchable federal workers in the bowels of huge bureaucracies.

Today countless federal politicians, liberal pollsters, and advocacy groups claim to speak for the people. A House of Representatives whose members lived full time in thousands of districts across America and whose members traveled to Washington only a few times a year for special occasions, would speak for the people. And if the people were heard, I submit, then they would demand simple, fair, modest, rational and clear government.

Although this reform would require "only" a federal statute, the dirty secret in Washington is that the constellation of stars required for this occurs only once in a generation. The last time a political party had a filibuster-proof Senate majority, a working majority in the House of Representatives and the White House was during the first two years of Jimmy Carter's presidency.

But the suicide pact that Democrat leaders seem to have signed, along with the enormous latent popularity of President Bush and the new majority status of the Republican Party may grant President Bush this two year window of opportunity in 2005 to 2007. No less than fourteen Democrat senate seats could be lost, and this - combined with a 1964, 1972 or 1984 style presidential landslide - could create the strength to push this through.

This would be particularly true if Democrats perceive that through the current political structure of the federal government, they are out of power for a long, long time. Shaking up the House might appeal to them. So what? Once done, it would be impossible to undo (try to reduce the number of House seats!) And once done, it would return government back to you and to me. The Founding Fathers would smile.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Single federal code redux by Bruce Walker (January 20, 2003)
    Bruce Walker responds to W. James Antle III's and Robert S. Sargent Jr.'s thoughts on his idea that a big federal government isn't necessarily a bad thing
  • The conservative case against a single federal code by Robert S. Sargent Jr. (January 13, 2003)
    A recent article by Bruce Walker on increased centralized government continues to draw responses. This week Robert S. Sargent Jr. takes Walker on
  • The conservative case for a decentralized federal republic by W. James Antle III (January 6, 2003)
    Two weeks ago Bruce Walker argued for increased centralization of government in the United States. W. James Antle III says Walker made an eloquent case but he says there is a reason why America's Founding Fathers crafted the system that Americans have today
  • The conservative case for a single federal code by Bruce Walker (December 23, 2002)
    Bruce Walker argues that a big federal government isn't necessarily a bad thing and offers a few benefits if done right. The federal/state/local split Americans have now is outdated, ineffective and a fraud

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