As George W. Bush prepares to exchange the pleasures of rusticity at his ranch for the capital's political climate that he vows to improve, here is a proposal for doing so: Increase the size of the House of Representatives to 1,000 seats.
Today's number, 435, is neither written into the Constitution nor graven on the heart of humanity by the finger of God. It was set by a 1911 statute, which can be changed in a trice.
In 1910, when America's population was 92,228,496, the ratio of representatives to citizens was one for every 212,999. The House has been 435 members since 1912 (except briefly after Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, when there were 437 representatives until after the 1960 census).
The first Congress had 65 representatives for about 3.9 million Americans, one for every 60,000. Not until 1860 did the ratio top one for every 100,000. Today the ratio is one for every 646,947. In 1790 only Virginia had that many residents (692,000). Today, four states (Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming) do not have that many. So now representatives, whom the Founders intended to represent smaller numbers than senators, represent more people than most senators did in the Founders' era.
If there were 1,000 representatives today, the ratio would be one for every 281,000, about what it was in 1930. Candidates could campaign as candidates did in the pre-broadcasting era, with more retail than wholesale politicking, door to door, meeting by meeting. Hence there would be less need for money, most of which now buys television time. So enlarging the House can be justified in terms of the goal that nowadays trumps all others among "progressive" thinkers -- campaign finance reform.
Much of the political class and the media, with the special irresponsibility each brings to campaign finance reform, saluted and swooned in admiration when John McCain recently vowed promptly to force action on his reform bill. The swooning saluters were undeterred by the fact that the contents of McCain's bill had not yet been -- and still have not been -- divulged.
However, one of Bush's published reform proposals, although potentially hugely important, goes largely unremarked. It would ban lobbyists from making campaign contributions to any senator or representative while Congress is in session. This, even more than the seating problems in a 1,000-member House, would be a powerful incentive for Congress to have shorter sessions.
Critics will say, correctly, that the House chamber cannot seat 1,000 members, that it would be crowded and uncomfortable, that office space would be so severely rationed that staffs would have to be trimmed, so the House, and therefore Congress, could not do very much. Sensible people would be dry-eyed about such conditions, which would encourage representatives not to tarry here.
Besides, congestion would be constructive. The greatest democratic statesman of the last century understood this.
On May 10, 1941, an air raid badly damaged the House of Commons, which moved its sitting to the House of Lords. On Oct. 28, 1943, Winston Churchill delivered a short, brilliant speech concerning reconstruction. "We shape our buildings," he said, "and afterwards our buildings shape us." Hence he said that the House "should not be big enough to contain all its Members at once without overcrowding, and that there should be no question of every Member having a separate seat reserved for him."
In a House that could accommodate everyone, most debates would be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty chamber. (As any viewer of C-SPAN knows, this is the case in the House of Representatives today.) But, said Churchill, good parliamentary dialogue -- quick, informal, conversational -- "requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency." Besides, the House's vitality and its hold on the nation's imagination "depend to no small extent upon its episodes and great moments, even upon its scenes and rows, which, as everyone will agree, are better conducted at close quarters."
Of course, the House of Representatives will not more than double its size, thereby diluting the majesty of membership and the power of each member. In truth, there are reasons for not doing so, including considerations of sheer cumbersomeness.
Nevertheless, it is well to acknowledge arguments for enlargement. They point to possible connections between institutional attributes and the tone and quality of representative government, which, as the president-elect has repeatedly said, has room for improvement.