Refactoring Democracy

Part 2: The Curse of Permanent Reapportionment

This is Part 2 of a six-part series on our Representation in the United States.

In Part 1, we reviewed the history of American apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Today, we’ll examine how the Act of Permanent Reapportionment dealt a fatal blow to American Democracy.

So? What’s the Big Deal?

Permanent reapportionment of the House had many egregious consequences that we continue to suffer today. The act of Congress capping House size to 435 fundamentally puts another cap on our democratic threshold as citizens to participate in government. Worse, that cap continues to collapse in on us as our population increases. Get the feeling?

Since the House last increased in size in 1911, the United States population tripled from 92 million to over 326 million people. Having capped our Representatives at 435, we’ve gone from one Representative representing nearly 240,000 people to one Representative representing over 750,000 people. We’re due to hit one per million before the end of the century.

With an approval rating of 19%, most everyone feels like Congress has lost touch and been ransacked by Special Interests. This is the key reason why.

How can Members stay in touch with so many damn constituents? With such large districts, it’s nearly impossible for a Representative to have any clue what’s going on in his or her gargantuan hometown. Conversely, large districts make it exceedingly difficult for you to monitor performance or get acquainted firsthand with the character and beliefs of your elected official. Instead, we’re forced to interact with the Representative’s staff (people we did not elect) or learn about the official through mass media.

The Representative Attention Threshold

That ceiling you feel collapsing on you as an individual? It’s the amount of time our Representatives have to pay dedicated attention to us. If we give Members in Congress the benefit of the doubt and assume they actually work 70 hours per week when in session and 59 hours per week back at home (60% more than the average American, but whatever), that means a Representative has roughly 3,250 hours per year to divvy up.

Divided by the number of constituents per district, you get what we’ll call the Representative Attention Threshold (R.A.T.). By this math, your Representative who represents an average of 750,000 constituents has only 15.6 seconds of dedicated attention to spare for you…in an entire year.

That’s barely enough time to say hello.

Subtract the 4 hours a day your Representative is encouraged to spend fundraising and you’re left with a more dismal 10.8 seconds of R.A.T. time.

Elect an official who keeps it to a 40 hour work week? You’re down to 4.6 seconds. If a Congressman goes to see a movie, he could be eating up time otherwise spent addressing the individual needs of 1,500 people.

Representative Attention Threshold In Seconds Over Time

Capping the House at 435 means our Representatives have no time for us. And the problem is only getting worse as the population continues to grow.

Lobbyists Capitalize on the Limited Attention of Representatives

Well, what if you want more than 15 seconds with your Representative?

You can pay for it. Which is exactly what Special Interests hire lobbyists to do. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 9,447 lobbyists lobbied House Members of a total 11,166 lobbyists who spent $3.15 billion in 2016. Estimating that each Representative trafficked around $6 million each last year, that means an hour of our Representatives’ time costs roughly $1,800. Matthew Cossolotto aptly calls the 435 cap a “cartel-like ceiling on the supply of representation in America,” which rings especially true when looking at the price you have to pay to be represented.

Constitutional Attorney Joe Wolverton illustrates that, “The larger the pool of potential donors per each representative, the more money Special Interests are able to raise, thus decreasing proportionally the influence of individual voters.” As districts grow larger, money draws far more attention than voices of individual voters. Unless, of course, individual voters can cough up more than $1,800, which dramatically reduces the number, type, and net worth of people a Congressperson will bother speaking with.

James Madison pointed out the risks of keeping a House small: “Numerous bodies…are less subject to venality and corruption.” Ladies and gentlemen, we’re very corruptible right now. We’ve become a nation by and for Special Interests. Only by increasing the House size could we ever practically avert total oligarchy. To maintain the same level of effectiveness with an increased House size by only 200 seats, Special Interests would need to employ another 4,300 lobbyists and spend another $1.2 billion. Raise the number of seats even more than that and it would become nearly impossible for Special Interests to keep up and drive legislation apart from the People at that scale.

Voting Franchises Have Expanded Considerably

Since the House last increased size in 1911, the 19th Amendment extended voting rights to women, the 24th Amendment banned poll taxes to avert class and racial discrimination in elections, and the 26th Amendment extended voting rights along the youth axis to age 18. Per the last census, over 53.7% of the population who can vote now could not have voted when the House last increased to 435. Voting franchises have expanded more than twofold since then, but we have not boosted House size twofold.

John Adams declared that the House “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them.” While the 115th Congress became the most diverse in history, we are still 138 female Members and 106 non-white Members shy of painting a more accurate portrait of the demographics in our nation. Assuming such a redistribution of House seats could not happen naturally on its own anytime soon, we would need to add around 204 more seats to increase chances that underrepresented segments win a voice in and counterbalance the existing makeup of the House.

As a result of massive district sizes due to the House cap, we’re only able to elect politicians into office who are forced to homogenize the eclectic views and values of 750,000 people rather than elect a diverse group of Representatives truly reflecting our perspectives and concerns. In the process, we’re denied a devastating number of new perspectives and creative solutions to the issues we all face. And that’s a terrible loss for us all.

We’re Stuck in Partisan Hell

In the same way a limited number of seats largely stifles large demographics of the population from reflective representation, 435 seats leaves little room for candidates from minor political parties or movements to disrupt the status quo. With so few seats to buy into—seats that effect, among other really important things, the electoral college and election of our President—our political duopoly today has a vested interest in maintaining the two party system and continues to go all in to preserve it. Republicans and Democrats simply outspend and out-brand third parties in almost every race, creating a stranglehold on the system as a whole whereby third party brands cannot take credible shape.

With only 15 seconds to interact with our Representatives, it’s impossible to have a relationship, get to know them as people, or understand their values. Thus, it’s far easier to subscribe to party values and trust that the party picks candidates most reflective of those values. When presented with a ballot with names of complete strangers, you’ll pick blue or red based per your values. Even when you find yourself familiar with the candidate, you usually have little basis for supporting them other than whatever impression you got from their mass media campaigns. For President, where we spend far more time and candidates spend far more money for us to get to know them, our impressions are a little more developed. For our Representatives? It’s not personal. For most of us, we’re not picking a person; we’re picking a brand.

Without adding more Members to give minor parties a chance, House seats will continue to be coveted by Republican and Democratic powerhouses. We can only hope for a shining knight to somehow appear, remain independent, and clearly exude a new political brand more enticing and effective than the ones we’re stuck with today.

States Have Varied Representation

The highest democratic ideal is one person, one vote. In other words, every American’s vote should be worth the same. In our representative democracy, however, the value of each of our votes varies depending on where we live and how we’re represented. With the House apportioned the way it is, our votes cannot all be worth the same.

Taking the Census Bureau’s 2016 estimated total population of 323,127,513 (only 322,446,343 if you ignore District of Columbians since they literally don’t count because they’re not represented) and dividing it by 435, our Representatives each represent an average of 741,256 people. However, apportionment of the House dictates that some Representatives represent more and some less than 741,256. The chart below illustrates how much more or less than one an individual’s vote was worth in 2016 by state:

A voter in Rhode Island has almost twice as much more say than a voter in Montana over what federal laws we pass and who we elect as President. That’s seriously messed up. The 43% of Americans living in a state below the line should be pretty pissed off about this. Especially their Representatives, who are not allowed a proportionally increased staff budget to help deal with their much larger constituencies.

Given that 256 House and electoral votes sit above the line compared to 179 below the line, states proportionally overrepresented also wield a disproportionate amount of power in legislature. The Supreme Court established the one-person, one-vote principle in 1963 with their decision in Gray vs. Sanders, but this principle has only applied to comparable district sizes within states and not between the states themselves.

Zero-Sum Reapportionment

To keep the number fixed at 435 members, the House needs to reapportion seats after every census by taking some seats away from the shrinking or slower growing states to give seats to faster growing states. We call this zero-sum reapportionment. It took me almost an hour to really understand how the reapportionment formula works and I have to say…this whole zero-sum reapportionment business is an agonizing pain in the ass. More importantly, it’s not fair. Even when populations grow, many states can still lose seats.

Based on 2016 population estimates, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois are on track to lose one seat each despite the first three of these four states so far increasing in population by 215,000, 100,000, and 45,000 people respectively. Illinois so far lost roughly 30,000 people to put them at risk of losing their seat. West Virginia and Vermont are the only other states since 2010 to lose people (22,000 and 1,000 respectively), but Vermont has no more seats to lose and it’ll take another 20,000 people kissing West Virginia goodbye before they lose another. Minnesota attracted over 215,000 people — over seven times the 30,000 ratio mentioned in the Constitution — and yet will go from eight Representatives representing 690,000 people to seven Representatives representing 790,000. Zero-Sum Reapportionment axed Minnesotan’s R.A.T. time down from 9 seconds to 8 seconds while Wyomingites will continue to sit pretty with 11 seconds each. If I were a Minnesotan, I’d want to punch a Wyomingite in the face right now.

We Will Never Realistically Expand the Union Again

We have a handful of territories — The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Marina Islands — that wouldn’t mind joining our statehood party. Frankly, they deserve to and no one has made a better argument to me than John Oliver. Could it ever happen? Not without throwing our system of Permanent Reapportionment into a total tizzy.

What about poor little District of Columbia? Don’t voters there deserve House representation and a seat at the table? Yes, of course, but New York would likely have to give up one of their seats and that won’t happen without a fight (unless we add a seat to the whole equation). If by crazy chance Puerto Ricans ever get their way and become a state, other states would have to give up a total of five Congressional seats to Puerto Rico to represent their current population of 3.7 million. At present, California, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and West Virginia would all have to cough up seats to make room for a new kid at the table to keep the number at 435.

The slippery slope of adding territories to the Union — and adding five or six stars on our flag — would cost 10 states one or two valuable seats each. Given how tight representation already is and considering that the states who would be required to volunteer their seats make up 21% to 36% of the House as it stands, can you imagine a majority in both House and Senate ever approving of opening the floodgates to 4.7 million more people?

The Barrier to Entry Climbs Higher and Higher

As districts grow larger, political candidates have much larger voting pools of people to market themselves to and therefore need to raise much greater sums of money. Incumbent politicians spend less time governing and more time fundraising as a result. To reach that size of audience, candidates must forego traditional retail politics in favor of mass marketing campaigns and expensive television advertising. As such, candidates seldom get to meet with voters to understand their needs or demonstrate character. Candidates must also employ massive staffs. The price tag herein prohibits anyone who is not well-connected, famous or independently wealthy from running.

Moreover, incumbent Representatives have an insurmountable advantage when chasing reelection. Aside from name recognition and a track record, incumbents are better situated to re-solicit funds from past donors, leverage street cred to tap advocacy groups, attract free press coverage, and enjoy a largely limitless postage budget to mail voters. Challengers need to raise as much money or more to even stand a chance.

The result is no new blood in politics. Of the 393 House incumbents in 2016, 97% won reelection. Less than 10% of the 115th United States Congress are new to the game. As districts grow larger, Representatives can seize such a tight grip on their office that they never need to let go until they choose to retire (which is exactly how those 10% of seats opened up in the first place). One seat has been tied up by Michigan’s John Conyers for 52 years!

By adding more House seats, we increase our chances of electing citizen-legislators far more intimate with the lives and needs of average Americans. Without adding seats, we’re stuck with lifers and a 19% approval rating.

We Have Too Few Committees Addressing Too Few Issues

Most work accomplished in the House takes place in committees, not on the House floor. Committees were instituted to help Representatives focus on specific areas and develop expertise to increase the likelihood of thoughtful legislation. Over time, Congress organized a ton of committees to the point where Representatives are in an average of seven committees. Staffing too many committees hampers a Representative’s ability to get to know his or her subjects or draft functional bills without relying on unelected staffs.

Fewer Representatives means fewer people thinking about fewer issues. Just look at the Senate today: 13 of 100 Senators are tied up by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. At that size of committee with that level of high interest involvement, how much more can the other 87 Senators possibly be getting done right now? Fix the healthcare system? Yeah, right.

Adding more seats would reduce the number of committees each member has to serve on, which would allow Members to devote more time to more complicated subjects, thoroughly advance their expertise, and produce much stronger legislation. We could form more committees to address more issues with better results at a quicker pace. We’d see much more get done faster as the world continues to evolve more quickly around us.

Having reflected on all the pitfalls introduced into our system by way of a capped House size, next we’ll explore how many Representatives we should expect to have and evaluate methods for making that number defensible.

This is Part 2 of a six-part series on our representation in the United States.

Next: Part 3: The Ideal Number of Representatives