Answer to redistricting: Enlarge Congress

Posted: Dec 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week, when everyone who understands the First Amendment was rightly having conniptions over the Supreme Court's ruling that political speech can be severely regulated under the rubric of "campaign finance reform," the court also heard arguments in a major redistricting case brought by Pennsylvania Democrats. They're upset because they have a statewide advantage of some 445,000 votes but Democrats hold only seven of the state's 19 congressional seats. Their claim: Congressional districts are being drawn unfairly.

Truth be told, I don't particularly care much about the details of this case. The Democrats complain that the Republicans redrew the map so as to eliminate three Democratic seats. The Republicans say, you guys did it to us for decades, it's your turn to suck eggs.

OK, I may not be capturing the legal subtleties as well some scholars might. But the point is, it was ever thus. Gerrymandering - drawing districts for partisan advantage - is neither unconstitutional nor new. Indeed, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the only districts that violate constitutional principles are the ones excessively and explicitly gerrymandered along racial lines - you know, like the North Carolina district that snaked along Interstate 85 looking something like an X-ray of a colonoscopy.

Yes, I think Republicans in Texas and Colorado probably went too far when they decided to redraw congressional districts after the once-a-decade window was closed. And, maybe the Pennsylvania GOP has gone too far, though it doesn't seem like it to me.

But, look: It is simply inevitable that politicians will fight to draw congressional districts in the most advantageous way possible. Expecting them not to is like expecting Yogi Bear to abstain from eating picnic baskets for the sake of improving tourism.

I have the solution: Make Congress bigger. A lot bigger.

With 435 members, the U.S. Congress is one of the smallest representative bodies in the world. By "smallest" I mean literally and relatively. The British House of Commons is much bigger (659) and so is the British House of Lords (approx. 500). The French National Assembly (577 members) is bigger, as is the Mexican Chamber of Deputies (500), the Russian Duma (450) and so on. But, it's not just in absolute terms. Due to their smaller populations, these countries have fewer citizens for each representative, making them far more democratic.

The founding fathers wanted the U.S. Congress to grow with the population - and it did until 1920 when it froze at 435, largely as a failed effort to limit immigrant political influence. The only time George Washington chimed in during the constitutional convention was to implore his colleagues to reduce the size of congressional districts to 30,000 from a proposed 40,000. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison defended the size of these districts from numerous critics who considered them too large! Such mammoth districts, the critics believed, would amount to a tyranny.

Today the average congressional district has about 600,000 people in it (single-district Montana has closer to 1 million). By comparison, in 1790, half of the 16 U.S. states didn't have a combined population of 600,000. By today's standards, the 1790 House of Representatives would have had seven members and the Senate 24.

All of the ideas for fixing congressional districting call for more and more undemocratic intrusions into the process, particularly by unelected federal judges. Liberals and sympathetic judges want more minority representation. Fine. Most of us want representatives to reflect the values of their communities. That's fine too. Lots of people want "big money" gone from congressional elections. Also fine.

Expanding Congress might solve all of these supposed problems. A bigger Congress would be far more open to blacks, Hispanics, et al, for obvious reasons. Because fewer people would be electing them, representatives would have every reason to spend more time talking to a bigger share of their communities. And as for the influence of money, money would become less important in districts where TV ad spending was less of a prerequisite. And if you're worried about pork-barrel spending, there's every reason to believe it would be harder to get pet projects through a bigger Congress.

I don't know if we should have districts of 30,000 these days. That would create a Congress of more than 8,000 representatives. But a couple thousand wouldn't be a bad way to start.

Yes, there'd be a seating problem in Congress. But those guys are never all there to begin with and the British Parliament has had a standing-room only section for years. All of the voting is computerized, so that's not an obstacle.

The only thing keeping this from happening is that Congress gets to decide. And there's no reason to expect those guys to divvy up their own picnic baskets.