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PARING HOUSE MEMBERSHIP ISN'T THE BEST WAY TO CUT GOVERNMENT

Most people today agree that the size of the federal government needs to be reduced. However, of all the places where fat might be trimmed, the membership of the House of Representatives is not one of them.

That ill-conceived suggestion was recently made by Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa. He cites frustrations with the internal operations and the declining quality of debate in the House as reasons for his proposal calling for the elimination of 140 seats in the House by the year 2002. To his credit, he would relinquish his seat should the proposal become law.Currently, there are 435 representatives (not counting delegates from the District of Columbia and U.S. territories), each of whom represents a district with about 594,000 people.

If McHale's idea were implemented, each member of Congress would have a constituency of more than 875,000. In a time when people are feeling more alienated from their government than ever, it doesn't make sense to create larger congressional districts.

The framers of our Constitution understood this problem and tried to create a legislative body - the House - that would reflect "the people" and be responsive to their needs. One way to accomplish these goals was to keep leg-is-la-tive districts as small as possible.

Initially, each member represented about 33,000. Members of Congress were expected to be typical of their districts. It was also anticipated that they would be known by and accessible to their voters.

The framers foresaw growth and incorporated into the Constitution the expansion of the House to meet the needs of an expanding population.

But the country grew larger than perhaps the framers envisioned, and rather than have the number of members grow with the population, Congress voted to freeze House membership in 1910.

The situation will only worsen if the number of constituents each member must represent is increased.

Under McHale's proposal, Pennsylvania's delegation would drop from 21 to a minimum of 14 but more likely 13 or 12 because of the constitutional requirement that each state receive at least one representative regardless of the size of its population.

To redraw Pennsylvania so that each district accommodates nearly 900,000 people might mean parts of Philadelphia would be merged with surrounding suburbs to form districts. There would likely be at least one, and probably two, very large districts stretching across the state's rural areas in the north, center and south. People with little in common would be thrown together with a representative who must meet all their diverse needs.

There is one other significant implication for states in the Northeast and Midwest should House membership be reduced. Pairing House membership at the same time that the population in the Rust Belt continues to decline as a proportion of the total U.S. population will further reduce its legislative clout in Congress.

McHale should look elsewhere for solutions. Perhaps if members could free themselves from the grip of perpetual campaigning that they see as necessary to win re-election, they would have more time for deliberation.