Lawrence Uebel

Every once in a while I like to devote way too much thought to something that has almost no chance of happening. It’s a cliché that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and most of us implicitly understand the less-sexy corollary that more power corrupts further. Yet one of the most powerful positions in the country is shared by only a few hundred people.

In 1900 the U.S. Census Bureau marked the U.S. population at about 75 million. Right now we’re just under 310 million. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is set at a limit of 435 members. That means in 1900 the average legislator represented more than 170,000 people and right now each represents more than 700,000. Looking past the strict legal correctness of the reality, it becomes highly questionable whether one person can adequately represent the interests of 170,000 people, much less 700,000.

Proposals to reorder the House of Representatives based on population have been around for a while, but the House has two other fundamental issues that didn’t exist at the time of its formation. First, even basing representation on geography is becoming increasingly questionable. Ever since the transportation revolution of the 1800s (starting with railroads), the tie between people’s interests and their physical location has been diminishing. Economists and other academics are already predicting future generations of employees will spend less and less time at one job or company. Even today, most people would readily admit their interests, beliefs and ambitions (at least those related to things that might be dealt with by the federal government) are far more closely tied to things like their class or income than to the area where they live.

Finally, the legislative branch in general can legislate in far too many areas. In the movie The Good Shepherd, one of the characters discovers with horror the president is “going to break the CIA into a thousand pieces.” In a military (or paramilitary) organization, decentralization is extremely problematic. A streamlined decision-making hierarchy is better because problems are highly time-sensitive. But in a representative body, which is both fractured and deliberative by nature, decentralization is beneficial because many complex pieces with small amounts of power more accurately represent reality than a few centralized, uniform ones.

In 1789 when the U.S. Constitution went into full effect, Francis Bacon, the so-called “last man to know everything,” had been dead for less than two centuries. Society was undoubtedly specialized, but it was still possible to have a working knowledge of several major topics – at least compared to everyone else. Nowadays most fields are so complex that anyone who operates within them ought to be an expert. Why do we have people who have never done science making laws about it? Why do we have people who have never taught making laws about education? More importantly, why do we accept their amateur explanations of what a particular piece of legislation really means? Half the time representatives barely seem able to coherently explain what they’re actually voting on. (Make your Ted Stevens jokes here.) Why don’t we have a Technology Senate and a War Senate? Shouldn’t we be able to vote our ex-soldiers into positions that have authority over the military but not over business regulation?

Right now this is completely unrealistic, and it may always be. Firstly, the powerful rarely relinquish their own power and secondly, we’re beset by so many fundamental issues already that legislature reorganization is low on our list of priorities (not to mention most people don’t think about it). Like I said, I devote way too much thought to things that have almost no chance of happening – but maybe someday down the road this will look like a more sensible picture.