Unpopularity of Congress these days, this is...

GIVEN THE

March 23, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GIVEN THE unpopularity of Congress these days, this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out before you lock me up.

I think we need more members of the House of Representatives. A lot more. We have 435. I think we need more than twice that many.

Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution requires a census every 10 years for the purpose of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. From 1790 through 1910 (with the exception of 1840), after each census of an ever-growing population, Congress increased House membership. It went from 65 in 1789 to 106 to 142 to 186 to 213 to 242 to 232 to 237 to 243 to 293 to 332 to 357 to 391 to 435.

There it has been stuck for 80 years, through eight censuses.

In 1790, there was one member of the House for every 37,000 people counted in the census. By 1910 there was one for every 212,000. Today it's one per 575,000.

The Constitution doesn't say how many representatives there should be or could be, except that there can't be more than one for every 30,000 residents. There is no ideal number of constituents per representative. But 575,000 is clearly too high a number, looked at from a historical perspective.

It can be argued that a representative can serve more people today than at any time in the past. Travel is easier. Telecommunications allow a representative to deal with many more constituents each day than ever before. But on the other side of the ledger, the federal government is much more involved with the lives of average citizens today than before the Great Society, the New Frontier, the Fair Deal and the New Deal so greatly expanded the federal role.

The ratio of representatives to population that existed just before Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected was one per 282,000. Just to bring that back would require slightly more than doubling the number of representatives to about 900. To bring back the ratio of 1910 would require raising the number of representatives to almost 1,200.

My own suggestion is one per 250,000. That's a good round number, and in accord with the 1990 census would produce a House of Representatives with an even rounder number -- 1,000. Don't you at least like the contours of a Congress with exactly 100 senators and 1,000 representatives?

A representative with a constituency of 250,000 would be able to do a much better job of constituent service and of faithfully representing the constituency's views than is the case now, with a representative working for 575,000 or so folks.

Adding 565 representatives would be expensive. About 75 million dollars in salaries. But with much smaller constituencies, representatives could be made to go back to the staffing of yore. Instead of a personal staff of 15-18 employees, each representative would get a secretary, a legislative aide and a case worker. That would save about a quarter of a billion dollars.

Okay, officer, now I'll go quietly.

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