Otto Foelker

It hasn’t always been this way, has it? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it has. If you look back to ‘happier’ times, you see that the political composition of the US Congress is dominated by two squabbling parties, with little more than occasional seasoning — prompted by war and crises — provided by alternative voices (http://history.house.gov/Institution/Party-Divisions/Party-Divisions/). Sure, there have been times when we were given a choice from among several voices vying for the presidency to which the media lent an ear and a voice. But what good is that if an alternative voice is elected yet lacks any support in Congress to focus on addressing the country’s ills or improving the country’s economic and international standing? So here we are, boxed more than ever into a corner by money, media, and a general unwillingness to challenge the status quo in a system that’s designed to change with the times. Something’s gotta give, no?

Well, let’s see — the last time the Constitution was amended was…1992! The purpose? The 27th Amendment prevents politicians from ‘varying’ their compensation (any adjustments must apply to future sessions of Congress, just not the present, and presumably not to prior sessions). Earth-shattering, decisive, bold action taken by esteemed elected officials! Glad to know that representative democracy hasn’t descended into full and complete malfeasance…and that nothing in the past 25 years has occurred that might precipitate amending the Constitution. By comparison, over the first 150 years of the republic, the Constitution was amended 21 times, but since Prohibition was rescinded, a scant six amendments have been ratified. Clearly, we’re focused intently on forming a more perfect union. Cheers to that!

Take representative democracy itself. We all understand, more or less, that the US Congress is a bicameral body designed to accommodate geography and population. Even today, it makes sense: the geographic dimension helps in part to ensure that domestic policy formulation and promulgation benefits from a more complete understanding of the entire country by ensuring that all administrative divisions of the country (the states) have a voice in Congress, while the popular dimension ensures that, well, our richly informed electorate has its say. Yet, because of Congress, we have a situation in which some segments of the richly informed electorate carry greater weight in legislative deliberations and electoral outcomes than others. This gives us what we might call unbalanced representative democracy.

Let’s look again at that factional breakdown of the House of Representatives. Apart from the political composition, you will note that there has not been consistent maintenance by Congress of balanced representation in the House. Sadly, the framers of the Constitution were more concerned with ensuring that the House not become bloated and unwieldy than in preserving some sort of ‘one citizen, one vote’ balance throughout. Toward this end, the Constitution mandates that representatives in the House represent the interests of not less than 30,000 constituents. Public law 62–5 (http://www.publiclaw62-5.com/), rather than striving toward some sort of rough balance, served to perpetuate imbalance.

Funny thing is, at the time of this final Census-prompted increase in the membership of the House of Representatives, an amendment to the Constitution (the 17th Amendment, eventually) was being prepared to have the Senate elected directly by the voters rather than by the legislatures of each state. Why, you might ask, wasn’t some amendment processed and circulated to the states that sought to reconcile the concerns of Congress (that the House was becoming bloated, unwieldy, and subject to co-option by various committees) with preserving the general spirit of representative democracy, that of equal representation?

Well, let me introduce you to the esteemed Otto G. Foelker, a son of Mainz, representing Brooklyn in Washington (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=F000231). Indeed, recognizing that deliberation and cacophony are difficult to reconcile, yet observing that “many Members are elected by so small a proportion of the population of their district that to call them representatives is more humorous that truthful,” he drafted precisely such an amendment to address longstanding concerns. Whatever became of Otto’s proposed amendment? Wonder what this might have done to slavocracy’s Electoral College? Rather than sticking around to find out, Otto decamped for Oakland, California, putting some serious distance between himself, Brooklyn, and DC.

So, here we are, left with a bunch of what-ifs, lamenting Otto’s flight from Congress, and wondering if there will ever be any variety to spice things up in the halls of power. Are there any patriots out there willing and able to fund the establishment of a viable third party? Any prospects for amending the Constitution so that all citizens are more equally represented? Or do we just muddle along toward the precipice as we tell ourselves and the world just how exceptional we are — even if, at the end of the day, we are more the rule? Stay tuned — more ruminations to come!