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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Congress: Hitched to the Status Quo

To lead is to be out in front, pointing the jet’s nose one way rather than another. Leadership is not that which causes drag at the back of the plane. Leadership is not that which holds a society in place or protects the vested interests. Whether envisioning something new or a return to a better time, a leader is not oriented to the status quo. It is significant, therefore, that the Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the two chambers in the American Congress, has stated publicly that the Congress is rigged to advantage the status quo. The stunning implication is that members of Congress are actually anti-leaders.

 In an interview, Nancy Pelosi admitted, “This is an environment that is almost rigged, intentionally or not, wittingly or not, rigged so that the status quo just goes on.”[1] This amazing line can be read as confirmation that the fears of some of the American Founders has come true—namely, that the U.S. House would itself become an aristocratic body rivaling the U.S. Senate. With just 435 representatives for over 310 million people, George Washington’s plea on the last day of the Constitutional Convention that a minimum of 30,000 rather than 20,000 in a district would not be sufficiently democratic sounds trite, even antiquarian. With so few representatives relative to the total population, the U.S. House could not help but be aristocratic, each member being like a magnet to huge “gifts” from vested interests.

“We have to kick open the door and make our own environment” in the Congress, Pelosi urged, “reduce the role of money [in campaigns], insist on the civility of debates, and bring more women here, and that’s a better reflection of our country.” In painting this picture for us, the Minority Leader was indeed leading, for she was intrepidly venturing out beyond the status quo. Nevertheless, the thrust of leadership is not always enough to counter the gravity of the vested interests grounded in the status quo.

For example, as long as so few representatives hold such power, the money of the vested interests will inevitably find its way to the campaigns and the Congressional bills will continue to be written by the vested interests themselves. In approaching this problem systemically, more is needed. One possibility is to sift the E.U.’s lower legislative chamber for possible solutions. 

     The U.S. House of Representatives (top) and the European Parliament (bottom). That the E.U. Parliament is viable in operation as a legislative chamber suggests that the U.S. House could be enlarged to reduce the population per district.  Source: commons.wikimedia.org

At the beginning of 2012, European Parliament had a maximum of 751 representatives to cover a population of about 504 million, which works out to an average of 671,105 people in a district. Meanwhile, the U.S. House had 435 representatives to cover a population of about 313 million, which corresponds to an average of 719,540 people in a district. The difference is 48,435 people per district. To get down to 671,105 people per district, the U.S. House would need to add 31 seats. Were the House to have 751 representatives, the average number of people in a district would be 416,777. While more democratic than districts with an average population of 719,540, neither figure comes close to satisfying George Washington’s objection that 30,000 people in a given district is not sufficiently democratic (i.e., too many constituents for a given representative).

Therefore, in addition to increasing the number of seats—with the knowledge that 751 in a chamber can work—further reduction in the centralized power would be needed to reduce the money magnet’s power. One option would be returning more domestic policy areas to the state legislatures. At the time of Pelosi’s statement, the U.S. states had 7,382 state legislators altogether.[2] Spreading around additional powers, taken from the Congress, to so many more representatives would not only make American federalism more democratic, but also open up possibilities for real change beyond the grasp of the status quo. As a few examples even without the additional power, some states had legalized gay marriage, two had legalized pot, and one had achieved universal health-insurance. Admittedly, the status quo has a greater grip in some states (e.g., Kansas) than others (e.g., California). However, spreading out governmental power could perhaps be sufficient to give leadership a chance to outpace the moneyed interests in the status quo.   

[1] Laura Bassett, “Nancy Pelosi: Congress Is ‘Rigged’ to Maintain the Status Quo,” The Huffington Post, June 5, 2013.
[2] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Sizes of Legislatures,” 2013.