Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Time to Reform The House of Representatives

When I studied European history back in high school, I took a particular interest in the various reform acts in Great Britain that changed the role of Parliament and representation within it.  The British system seemed very capable of making needed changes in the face of the popular demands and changing times.  These changes were driven in part by the fact that in any representative democracy, it is the lower house of the legislature that is supposed to reflect most the direct, popular will.

 In America, this is not the case at all.  Representatives claim to "represent" over half a million people, and likely do so in tailor-drawn districts that ensure that they only have to listen to the wishes of party stalwarts.  Despite the fact that Republican candidates got fewer votes in House elections last year than Democratic candidates, they still control it by a comfortable margin.  House members are not accountable to their constituents, and often never have to seriously contest their re-election.

There are a few steps available to us that can help remedy this situation.  First, we must recognize that the Constitution's mechanism of having state legislatures draw up districts needs to be tossed out.  The authors of the Constitution did not foresee the power of political parties, and today districts are basically drawn in the partisan interest of whatever party happens to control a particular state's legislature in the period after the census.  The district lines have thus little to do with democracy, and a lot to do with party politics.  In states like California, which have put districting in the hands of impartial bodies, the result has been more competitive elections.  Leaving it in the hands of politicians leads to the shameful fiasco this week in Virginia, where state-level districts were drawn up by Republicans to dilute the votes of African-Americans.

We also need more representatives.  The number has been limited to 435 since the early 1900s, when the nation's population was a third as big as it is now.  In Great Britain, Parliament has over six hundred representatives despite being much smaller than the United States.  The very size of constituencies makes drawing meaningful districts difficult.  It certainly makes it hard for voters to call their representatives to account.

It's all well and good to reform the filibuster in the Senate, but without real changes to the House and the way it is constituted we will continue with the current static, unresponsive system.

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