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Friday, April 8, 2011

Maybe We Need More Politicians

            Is it possible that one of the major problems with our system of government could be that we don’t have enough politicians? The idea is counterintuitive and liable to induce brain hemorrhage in some quarters, but it’s certainly in line with the original intent of the founders.
            Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the number of members of Congress shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand people. In the debate over the Constitution, it was presumed that the number might be bumped upward as America’s population grew.
            Tench Coxe III of Philadelphia, who later went on to serve in the Washington, Jefferson and Madison administrations, wrote in 1787, “When the encreasing population of the country shall render the body too large at the rate of one member for every thirty thousand persons, they will be returned at the greater rate of one for every forty or fifty thousand.”
            Well, it’s actually a far greater rate than that now. More than a century ago, Congress capped the number of representatives at 435, which means that following the 2010 Census, each congress member will be representing nearly 710,000 people — roughly the population of Charlotte, N.C.
            Coxe, who was a Federalist and a partisan for the new Constitution, championed the rule of thirty thousand by arguing that if every congress member had to represent at least that many people, there would be too many voters in the mix to allow a handful of powerful men to dictate who would serve.
            Neither Coxe nor any of the other Founders foresaw (and this is one of the big problems with the notion of original intent) how populous the country would become and the impact so large a population would have on congressional elections. With congressional districts of 700,000, a shoe-leather campaign is an impossibility. The only way to reach that many people is through intensive and costly media campaigns, ranging from direct mail to television.
            The high cost of those campaigns vastly increases the influence of the political parties and wealthy contributors (corporate or individual) who want some sort of break from the government. In a cruel irony, too many voters create the same problem as too few voters — undue influence by moneyed interests.
            Suppose, though, that we went back to the original intent of having members of congress represent a more manageable number of constituents — say Coxe’s outer limit of fifty thousand. A lot of good things could come of it.
            To begin with, it would be a lot tougher for even the flushest of contributors to give to about 6,175 congressional campaigns, the number under this formula. Let’s say a company had $5 million in its budget for buying — excuse me, contributing to the campaigns of — congress members. It could spend $11,500 on each one now, which is certainly enough to have some influence.
            With one congress member per 50,000 people the same company could spend only $810 per candidate, a far less influential sum. And in districts of that size, candidates could do more personal campaigning and would be known to many of their constituents, who would be likely to run into them at the ice cream parlor or Chinese restaurant. It’s harder to slime a candidate or office holder in the media when that person is well known and has some standing in the community. Furthemore, that standing allows the office holder some leeway to make an unpopular decision or two.
            All this is sheer fantasy of course. It would have to be approved by Congress, and most people, politicians included, don’t voluntarily reduce their status or power. But the principle of bringing government closer to the people is not a bad one, even if it takes more politicians to do it.