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Shake up the House (and restore a Republic)

By Bruce Walker
web posted July 16, 2001

When the Founding Fathers drafted our Constitution, the House of Representatives was intended to be the populist branch of the federal legislature. One way to help insure that the members of this House were close to the people was to set a low ratio of constituents to House members.

This number of constituents to Congressmen -- 30,000 to 1 -- did not change for more than a century. As the population of the United States grew, the size of the House of Representatives grew in direct proportion. Only when this size reached the current 435 members in 1912, which was considered "unmanageable" number, did Congress set the size of the House of Representatives at the current number.

One consequence was that "reapportionment" rather than "addition" of House members became the standard practice of insuring the House reflected population. Until then, except for those rare cases in which a state actually lost population during a decennial period, states that grew more slowly than the nation as a whole simply lost comparative numbers in the House of Representatives.

Today government, and particularly the Federal Government, has reached that distance from the people which our Founding Fathers so feared. The average Congressional district has about 600,000 constituents, meaning that simply "knowing" your Congressman today is a very big deal or twenty times the original ratio.

The Constitution does not have a maximum ratio on constituents to Congressmen, only a minimum the 30,000 to 1 ratio in Article I, Section 2. What if Congress increased the size of the House of Representatives by restoring this old ratio? The size of the House of Representatives would almost immediately increase to about 10,000 members.

So how, exactly, would that help things? Wouldn't the shadowy Congressmen become even more remote -- sort of like the delegate to a national political convention? What if we add one more element, recalling the original reason why the size of the House of Representatives was frozen, and amend the Rules of the House of Representatives so that members were required to work out of their districts?

Today, is there any reason why a Congressman cannot exchange information and observations electronically? Is there any reason why votes cannot be cast by a Congressman 1,000 miles from Washington? And wouldn't that be a great idea, in and of itself?

Along with this change in the Rules of the House of Representatives, amend the procedures for handling legislative matters so that the Byzantine and convoluted system of committees, subcommittees, and the like were abolished and the legislative process itself rendered transparent. In this scenario, three big changes would combine to transform federal politics.

First, the sheer reduced size of the Congressional District would make it very easy for challengers to run without money, fame, or influence. Door to door campaigns do work in state legislative races. Slick ad campaigns work mean little in small sized races and, if anything, raise eyebrows.

Second, requiring Congressmen to live and to work in their districts (rather than simply maintain a nominal residence in their district) means that they will much better reflect the true sentiment of those they represent. They will be accessible, just as Tribunes in Rome were required to be accessible.

Third, requiring that votes and deliberations be public and opening the process so that -- say -- any measure supported for a vote by two-thirds of the House members must be voted on within twenty-four hours on a recorded voted, would strip those versed in how to conceal what House actually does would be naked. The people, if nothing else, could quickly demand that popular measures be called up for votes.

These three changes together would quickly transform the House of Representatives into a true mirror of Main Street America, and that would give it unprecedented political clout. This clout could, and should, be used for much more than simply passing legislation that the Senate will twist into odd and unfamiliar shapes. Consider several key ways in which the House of Representative could begin to stretch its influence far beyond mere legislation.

The House has the unique power to impeach, and it alone can determine what justifies impeachment. The federal government fairly oozes with arrogant, ideologically extreme leftists. The Constitution provides that the House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment. Who is subject to impeachment? Clearly this power covers the President, Vice President, and Supreme Court Justices and other federal judges, but does it not also cover anyone who holds executive or legislative power under the Constitution? Well, it probably was intended to cover all those officers, but the House can decide that it does in any event.

So when egregious examples of abuse or perhaps just extreme muddle-headed thinking of federal judges produces weird decisions, what is to prevent an incensed House of Representatives, based on strong grass roots support, from passing Articles of Impeachment on the grounds that this federal district judge is not upholding his oath to the Constitution by rendering a decision utterly incompatible with that Constitution.

The impeachment itself would be telling, but say that this was an extremely unpopular judicial decision and the vote on impeachment was, say, 9,800 to 23? The impeachment would effectively de-legitimize the decision.

What could be done to the strange characters who have insinuated themselves into the nooks and crannies of federal privilege and power could also be done on broad policy issues. Nothing stops the House of Representatives from passing resolutions, and nothing does or could prevent the House from stating in these resolutions an interpretation of the Constitution itself.

Consider also the power of the House of Representatives to pass formal resolutions, whatever the Supreme Court or anyone else may think. What if the House of Representatives passed a resolution by an wildly lopsided margin that said:

"The issue of abortion is not an issue within the jurisdiction of federal judges interpreting the United States Constitution to determine. Abortion, rather, is a matter of state criminal law and each state government can, and we find does, have the power to make abortion legal, criminal, or regulate abortion at some intermediate level."

Blam! What does that do to the Supreme Court's aura of authority? This huge and highly representative House of Representatives would become the eight hundred pound gorilla of American politics. When the House of Representatives become the living, breathing voice of the people, then it will substitute the silly and capricious public opinion polls of mainstream media.

Congress specifically grants franking privileges to Members of Congress, and it allows Congress to control the records of its proceedings. Why not expand this to allow public policy issues to be debated in a slick, publication which is both printed (and mailed free to each household in America) and on-line. Provide these publications give an even voice to each Member of the House, and provide also extensive resources to organizations within the House who can conduct their own polls, research, and investigations. Institutionalize debate of public policy through the same sort of proportional allocation of resources that occurs in the normal course of House or Senate debate, only move that debate process -- one that used to be taken quite seriously two hundred years ago -- and allow that to evolve into a national, media friendly debate.

The beauty of these reforms is that they require only a single act of Congress, which is much in synch with the moods and sage suspicions of the people. The House of Representatives itself could implement the changes in House Rules with a simple majority vote.

And this would be a real revolution -- the first in American government which actually returned huge chunks of power back to the neighborhoods, towns, and cities of America without reducing one bit the amount of federal power. Instead, it would make federal power truly reflect what the average man and woman in America wants. All those things we know would clean the muck of regulation and the indifference of insulated officialdom and the never-never land of the elites -- all those would be cast quickly into the dustbin of history. Why not?

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




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