Bruce Bartlett

When the Founding Fathers designed our system of government, one of their key ideas was that some of its components should be more accountable to public opinion and others less. At one extreme, Supreme Court justices were given life tenure. At the other, members of the House of Representatives have to run for re-election every two years.

In between, presidents are elected every four years by the Electoral College. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures for six-year terms -- only later did they become popularly elected.

Thus, we see that the Founding Fathers wanted only members of the House of Representatives to be elected through direct democracy. All other federal officials were elected or appointed only by indirect means. As one moves up the ladder of influence, democracy -- that is to say, public opinion -- was intended to play less and less of a role in decisionmaking.

The Founding Fathers did this very deliberately because they were fearful that the passions of the moment might lead to unwise decisions. They wanted some elected officials to be insulated to some degree from these passions, so that they could be more dispassionate in their judgments.

They also wanted the different branches of government to have different incentives from representing different elements of the electorate. The president represents the nation as a whole, in contrast to the parochialism of Congress, and was given the veto so as to discipline Congress when necessary.

Senators were originally expected to represent the states as states -- almost in the sense of being ambassadors to Washington from the states, which had far more sovereignty at the time of the Constitutional Convention than they have now.

Unfortunately, this sensible system was thrown out of whack by two fateful decisions, both made in 1913. The first was to change the method by which senators are elected, eliminating the role of the legislatures and electing them directly by the people. The inevitable result was to emasculate the states and eliminate much of their sovereignty.

The second decision was to permanently cap the number of House members. Previously, new congressional seats had been added from time to time to accommodate population growth and the entrance of new states into the union. According to the Clerk of the House, the number of House members grew from 65 in 1790 to 223 in 1850 and 386 in 1910. But ever since 1913, the number has been capped at 435.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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