That nuclear option: building a better House

· Reform

Xian beat me to it; I was going to post about the idea to stop electing Representatives from districts and have each state choose its electors as a bloc (thus, California would send 53 Democrats). Kleiman was talking about only amending California’s constitution, and thus producing a Democratic-controlled House.

Such a change won’t happen, but I got thinking about the same hypothetical as xian: if every state did this, what would the party breakdown be? Presumably Texas would send 32 Republicans; what would happen if this were universal?

Currently there are 232 Republican seats and 203 Democratic ones (if we include independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Dems). To figure this very precisely, someone would have to total up all the votes for the House in each state by party. But we can get a first approximation by using the statewide vote count for president: If in every state, the party that won the presidential race also chose the entire block of Representatives, we’d have 224 Republicans and 211 Democrats.

OK, so (to use Cold War vocabulary) Kleiman’s idea is a first-strike advantage, and because Democrats currently dominate the most populous states it would probably give them a long-term edge. But that edge would shrink as Republicans copy the idea in their most populous states.

Raising the subject allows me to throw out my own wish, although it’s not one that would realign the party count: We need to expand the number of members in the House of Representatives. Here are some calculations from one web site:

If Congress wanted to keep the electoral college but make it fairer, there is a simple (but unlikely) solution: increase the size of the House of Representatives. There is nothing in the constitution mandating a particular size except that each member must represent at least 30,000 people (which puts an upper limit on the House of about 10,000 members). In fact, the House has been expanded repeatedly in the past as the nation grew. The most recent expansion was in 1911, when the U.S. population was about 93 million, so a representative had 212,000 constituents. With the current population of 293 million, a representative has 674,000 constituents. To bring this number back to its 1911 value, the House should be expanded to 1370 members. Since a state’s electoral vote is equal to its congressional representation, with 1370 House members, the effect of the 100 senators would be much smaller and the electoral votes would be almost proportional to population. To increase the size of the House, Congress would merely have to pass a law; the states would not be involved at all.

It would be harder to gerrymander smaller districts. Each Rep. would have to be more in touch with their specific constituents; they’d still be subject to purchase, but the lobby money would have to be spread among more pols, reducing the impact on most individual races. The electoral college would be closer to representing one-person-one-vote, reducing (but not eliminating) the disproportionate clout that low-population states currently hold, using a method that dodges that clout (Congressional vote and Presidential signature instead of Constitutional amendment).

But such a proposal would have to be nearly “revenue-neutral” to pass: if a larger House would necessary and obviously swing control of Congress or the White House to the Democratic party, it won’t happen. Under the current apportionment method, if you increase the number of members, the Democratic states would pick up new ones faster. Change the calculation method slightly so the Republicans hold about the same proportion (51.5%) of the new House seats / Electoral College votes, and the idea would have a chance. In a 1000-member House, we’d be talking about moving 10 to 20 seats in absolute terms to maintain the current balance in percentage terms.

OK, we need a large, odd number, but nobody’s going to get anything done in a legislative chamber with 1370 participants. What if we just went to 999 members? No, somebody would complain that that’s really a surreptitious way of imposing the Mark of the Beast on America. Then, how about 869, just about double the current number? Ah, no; the American Taliban wouldn’t allow “69” in public discourse.

What about 835? Not quite doubling the number; each member would represent just under 350,000 people. It would certainly be attractive to a lot of politicians, because it increases their job market—more state legislators move up. States that currently have very few reps would waffle: After more than 225 years, Delaware finally gets a second representative; Utah sued because they were only 80 residents away from a fourth rep, and here’s a way for them to get it. But overall, power in the House and in the Electoral College would be diluted away from small states in general.

However, I think most medium-sized states would like to send another five to ten members. And because we wouldn’t have to vote state by state, I think the current large-state advantage could make such a vote a slam-dunk.

OK, shoot that down.

(updated to reflect Doris Matsui’s win yesterday)