Republic, Unfrozen

by Christopher Phillips, adapted by the author from his blog item on the Huffington Post

For over seven years, I've been gallivanting across the fruited plain holding mini Constitutional Conventions with motley Americans. Many participants in these “Constitution Cafés” have joined the growing hue and cry across the political spectrum for a new Constitutional Convention to introduce amendments to enact campaign finance reform and do away with corporate personhood.

But we don't need a single amendment to bring about the fundamental change needed to take our constitutional republic off life support in these days of deep governmental dysfunction and pervasive corruption. The fact is that our visionary Framers provided us with a brilliant remedy for reviving our republic. Best of all, to implement it, no amendment is required.

With James Madison steering the proceedings at the Constitutional Convention, our Framers created a republican system that would prevent "factionalism" of a sort that would enable one powerful party or interest to prevail over everyone else. To Madison, the vaster our country became, the less likely it was that factionalism could undermine our experiment with republican democracy. As he postulated in Federalist 10, “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”

Our nation was already in the throes of growing pains as our Framers crafted the Constitution. They believed that this was all to the good as long as the ranks within the House of Representatives kept increasing as well. In a Federalist essay, Madison praised his fellow Framers' "foresight" in seeing to it "that the progress of population may be accompanied with a proper increase of the representative branch of the government."

It would never have entered Madison's worst nightmares that Congress itself would undo their beautiful plan for embedding the tradition of true “representativeness” in our growing nation's fabric. Yet just over a century ago, Congress did just that.

Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution gives us the right to have one member of Congress for every 30,000 constituents in each state. That's right, our Framers provided us with the means for an extraordinarily representative republic.

Until 1912, the number of members of Congress increased in lockstep with population growth. Every ten years, after each census was tabulated, Congress passed a law that increased the size of the House in lockstep with the increase in the nation's citizenry. Even as population growth exploded, genuine “representativeness” remained intact.

Then Congress passed Public Law 62-5, freezing the number of members of the House of Representatives at the 435 members.

The result: republic, frozen. Today we have only a veneer of representativeness, with one member of Congress per 700,000-plus constituents.

If we'd continued upping Congress's numbers at the same pace as before Public Law 62-5 went into effect, we'd now have about 1,500 members. If we'd kept increasing their rolls by the same percentage as in our nation's early years, when we had one Representative for every 60,000 constituents, we'd have about 5,000 members of Congress today. And if we took complete advantage of our Framers' offer of one member of Congress for every 30,000 constituents, we'd enjoy about 10,000 representatives.

The good news is that we only need a majority in Congress to do away with this law and unfreeze our republic. No matter which option you prefer—increasing our House membership to 1,500, to 5,000, or going the whole enchilada, as our Constitution permits, and having one member of Congress for each 30,000 constituents—if we enact legislation that raises its ranks significantly, our republic will begin to unthaw and undo a century’s worth of damage. If and when this comes to pass, we will fast become engaged, enlightened and informed about the issues—and we'll rock the vote in record numbers—because our voices will matter and count. Americans will care to know about the issues of the day. They’ll be stakeholders with real clout in determining the direction of our republic.

What’s more, members of Congress will no longer have to start fundraising for the next round of elections the moment they’ve won the most recent round. Today, no matter how punishing a schedule a member of Congress has, it’s impossible to know many voters’ views in an up close and personal way. With far fewer constituents per district, your member of Congress will have the time and the wherewithal to listen to you.  

And if you don't like the way your representative votes, you'll easily be able to evict her from office, even without a term limits amendment. Because nearly anyone, no matter how shallow her pockets, will be able to wage a viable and winnable campaign in which she can effectively get her message out to potential voters.

With the elimination of a two-party system beholden to corporate coffers, there will no longer be the pressing need for a campaign finance reform amendment. It's not nearly so easy to legally bribe thousands of Congress members. K Street will turn into John Q. Public Street.

The House will have a colorful cast of characters, replete not only with people of color, but a politics of color, with equally colorful political philosophies. And its members will become feisty, scrappy, on behalf of their constituents, rather than the most powerful factions within their constituency. For instance, with a representative group of representatives that heeds constituents’ will, we’ll surely have sane and sensible gun control legislation, and a far saner and more sensible way of providing health care. What’s more, war—and peace—policy will no longer be of the unconstitutional variety, since Congress will be much more inclined to assert its constitutional authority. As things stand, presidents engage in incursions abroad at will. As things are supposed to stand, Congress first must declare war before a president can do this. But there have only been five declared wars in our nation’s history, the last one World War II. Additionally, the odds that Congress would ever again implement a constitutionally questionable bailout for those very corporations whose irresponsible actions triggered an economic meltdown would be slim to none.

But isn't the price we'd pay for cozy congressional districts an unwieldy congressional chamber? In ancient Athens, whenever a legislative assembly was called into session, the first 6,000 men to arrive at the stadium on the top of the Acropolis Hill took part in the vote on the measure—and the people's business was accomplished. If we built today a brick and mortar stadium-like chamber, it would feature a cacophonous, raucous, colorful House. And with high tech wizardry, they can conduct much or most of their business from their home district. For all those favoring decentralization, this would do away with the hated beltway mentality. Most of all, members will debate and discourse, form creative alliances, reach beautiful compromises. They'll get a whole, whole lot more done than is being accomplished now, and in a way that is in line with the will of the people.

Ever since we quit increasing the number of House members over the years, Congress has regularly augmented the number of unelected congressional staff members. Today, each member of Congress has 22 staffers. Multiply that by 435 and you get a lot of unelected staffers. Now add about 6,000 more unelected public servants who toil away on the “people’s business” for the legions of congressional committees and such. All told, we have about 16,000 unelected staffers working for Congress. 

If we did away with that army of staffers, except for, say, three per member of Congress, and increased the number of elected Representatives, we’d have about the same number of inhabitants on Capitol Hill as we do now—except now they would be 10,000 duly elected representatives who would be conduits of their voters’ will.

But if way smaller congressional districts is a great remedy, why didn't it prevent the factionalism that sparked the Civil War? After all, Congressional districts were of a size then that made it possible for House members to heed their constituents' will. But “the people” was limited to well-off white male property holders. Those elected to Congress didn't reflect the views of most of those of voting age in their districts. Above and beyond that, though, there wasn't yet the rich plurality of political dispositions that we have today among our populace. Our nation wasn't yet vast enough to realize Madison's vision. It is today.

All it takes for my proposed remedy to become a reality is a simple majority vote by Congress. We ordinary Americans must insist that Congress rescind Public Law 62-5. Make your member of Congress, and candidates vying for congressional office, sign a pledge committing themselves to doing away with this law. Ultimately, it's incumbent on “we the people” to take it upon ourselves to revive our republic while it's still revivable.