Modern representative democracy was invented in Philadelphia in 1787. The premise was that competent people with a stake in society (i.e. males, white, not slaves, usually with some degree of wealth) should be in charge. However, unlike the model democracy of ancient Athens (also limited to males, not slaves) there were too many of them and they were spread out over too big an area to get together in one place to sort things out on a regular basis. Over the following two hundred years, the number of such males increased, Blacks and women were included and wide-spread education enhanced the capabilities of voters to understand the issues which they charged their representatives to resolve. We have now come to the point where we accept that every adult has a recognizable stake that needs to be represented.
The Founding Fathers believed that a close connection between the people and their representatives was essential. Debates at the Constitutional Convention looked to ratios of one representative to 30,000-50,000 people. With the growth of the population, the average congressional district (2020 census) now has over 760,000 people. By contrast, only California and Texas have larger state legislative districts (State Senate districts are almost a million people and over 800k, respectively), but most have a lower house members representing fewer than 50,000 people. Similarly, on a world-wide basis, only India has larger districts (2.2M/seat) than the US House.
Among the many problems with our current system is that representatives hardly know anybody (other than wealthy donors) in their districts. Another problem is that with the demands of being “on-site” in Washington, they can’t spend all that much time in their districts (yes, even Congresspeople should get vacations (other than to Cancun)). Finally, with the size of districts, it costs a lot of money to run, so members have to spend a disproportionate amount of time fundraising for re-election.
The idea of representation is important. I’m not great fan of plebiscitary democracy on any sort of on-going basis. Issues are complex and need more focused attention than almost all folks have the time/education for. Still, in one essential way, I’d like to go back to where we were in the 18C. One representative for every 40,000 people. A House of Representatives of just over 8,000 members. And, most of the time, they would live and work in their districts; conducting most votes and hearings and meetings remotely.
The main benefit of this model is that representatives would actually be in touch with their constituents. Since most of their “Washington work” would be done remotely (just proved-in via the Pandemic), they would be in the neighborhood a lot. People could actually be in touch with their representatives and might have a little more connection with the political process.
In addition, Small districts wouldn’t require much money for elections, so there wouldn’t be a need to focus on fundraising. Communities would be represented, reducing both the demand for and feasibility of gerrymandering. Corporate and other big-moneyed interests still couldn’t afford to overwhelm members, reducing the impact of lobbyists and generally breaking out of the “inside-the-Beltway” mentality that distorts much of US policy-making.
Occasionally mooted incremental increases in the size of the House don’t really solve any problems other than slightly reducing district size. Even doubling the House (a thousand House districts each with 331,000 people would take us back to the ratios of the 1940s) would still require doubling the House infrastructure in the middle of Washington DC, not to mention finding a room for them all to meet. Still not much chance of knowing your Congressperson (or vice-versa).
There are several risks/problems associated with this idea (besides the inertial thinking of incumbents). Committee staffs would likely gain sway in the legislative process (how about creating 10 regional centers around the country where committees would be based, further dispersing DC power?). Ditto for the federal bureaucracy. The sociology or organizational dynamics of this new House are hard to predict. A variety of new means of communications and negotiation methods and technologies would need to be explored. Party structures and the House “leadership’s” management of the flow of business would need to be rethought.
More fundamentally, our political structure has become like the weather: “everybody talks about it, but no one does anything about it.” We need a radical shift to ‘shake up’ the system: the sclerosis , the alienation, the inundation of money.
House districts of 40,000 people would mean that San Francisco would have 22 representatives (twice the number of the Board of Supervisors) and an average district would be a bit over two square miles: this is what community representation would look like. Oakland County, Michigan, where I grew up, filled with suburbs of various socio-economic mixes, would have 32 representatives. Even Wyoming, the epitome of rural America (49th in density) would have 15 seats, each about twice the size of a state Senate district. With so much local community representation, what would be the point of gerrymandering? Would it even be feasible?
Local representation would mean that the locus of representation would return to the relationship between citizens and their representative, away from the political/media/money hothouse of Washington, D.C. It would be a bold step towards a new mode of democracy in America.