Bigger Legislatures Mean Better Government?

Photograph by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Cyclists in Washington, D.C.

Would increasing the size of the House of Representatives or state legislatures lead to more responsive government?

John Cox, a California businessman and political activist, says his proposal to dramatically increase the size of his state’s legislature would make it a more citizen-driven institution. (Hat tip to the Washington Post’s Niraj Chokshi).

Cox would amend the state Constitution by subdividing California’s state legislative districts — 80 in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate — into thousands of so-called neighborhood districts such that each Assembly member would represent about 5,000 people and each senator would represent about 10,000 people. In California, which has more than 37 million people, the amendment would increase the size of the legislature by almost 100 times. A California state senator represents more people on average (931,000) than a California U.S. House member (about 703,000).

“Our Legislators represent too many constituents,” and the size of state legislative districts must be reduced “so that Legislators represent the interests of their neighbors and not the special interests,” Cox wrote in October.

The Cox-envisioned neighborhood-level legislators would elect “working committees” the size of the current Assembly and Senate. Cox’s proposal “gives working committees the legislative power generally, and sole power to amend bills, but requires approval by appropriate vote of the full membership in each house for passage of any non-urgency bill,” according to a title and summary posted by the California attorney general’s office.

Pennsylvania is moving in the opposite direction. As Chokshi notes, its state House last week passed a bill that would reduce its membership to 153 from 203 beginning next decade.

The size of the U.S. House has been fixed at 435 for more than a century, even as the nation added more than 200 million people. The average population of a congressional district was 710,767 in 2010, compared with 210,328 in 1910, according to the Census Bureau.

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution sets a maximum ratio of one House member per 30,000 people. If you applied that ratio to the House today, when the U.S. population exceeds 300 million people, the House would have more than 10,000 members.

Think of how fun or chaotic it would be to cover a 10,000-member House. “On this vote, the ayes are 5,204, the nays are 4,767, and the bill is passed …”


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