Current Issues

Rethinking the House of Representatives

Posted on February 2, 2014

The House of Representatives is broken.  We all know that and while the People’s Chamber has always been a more rough and tumble forum than the once more dignified Senate, it has descended into a dysfunctional and toxic state of political paralysis.  It no longer does the work of governing and we might ask, “Would we miss if it was gone?”

According to most polls, the answer would be a resounding “no!”

I have a proposal to rethink the House and how it does its work.  I would keep the number of members at the legally mandated 435, but I would no longer apportion them based on population.  We know that very populous states are capable of electing very bad politicians (I’m talking to you, Texas and Florida).  Indeed, the Tea Party is ample evidence that large groups of people are willing to elect people to govern who actually don’t believe in governing, sort of political suicide bombers.  And we see the mess we have on our hands today.

My proposal is inspired by a recent Politico ranking of states (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/states-of-our-union-are-not-all-strong-102547.html) based on 14 objective state rankings from places like the Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control, the FBI, and others.  I was pleased to see New Hampshire ranked #1.  Mississippi, no surprise, was ranked #50, as it was when this type of listing was first done by H.L. Mencken in 1931. 

So here’s my idea: using that ranking, let’s apportion the number of representatives to each state based on their ranking, but keep federal spending per citizen uniform no matter where one lives.  The higher up the ranking, the more Representatives you get to send to Congress to do the work of government.  The result would be that Representatives from states that actually take better care of their citizens would have a distinct majority in the House and could then drive policies that improve the quality of life in the low ranked states that have shown no evidence of the smarts and leadership to get there on their own.  The uniform funding component would ensure that the majority states could not underspend in those low tier states and the equal representation in the Senate ensures that states with few representatives still are fully represented in Congress. 

This is a competency-based form of representation, not based on ideology or party or corrupted processes or big money contributions to campaigns.  It’s all about results.  Do you educate your children better?  Do have safer communities?  Do have better health outcomes?  You can only improve those metrics through good policy, adequate investment, equitable approaches, structural change, and commitment to the people served.  States like Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee apparently lack all or some of those components, so let’s help their people out by sending fewer Representatives from their states to shape federal policy and more from states that show actual success in improving people’s lives.

This is not a partisan argument.  If you take the top twenty states in the Politico ranking, their leadership is split evenly among Democrats and Republicans.  There is a nice self-correcting function built into my model.  If a state like Maine, for example (#14 in the list), elects a Tea Party governor, as it did, and their scores get worse (as they will), the citizens of Maine will be protected from themselves when their portion of Reps goes down and some state that performs better moves past them and picks up their Representatives.  It’s really quite elegant.

Is it undemocratic?  I don’t think so.  We have one somewhat arbitrary model based on population.  It doesn’t work very well, so let’s use a model based on outcomes.  You still get to vote (we could set a floor – no state has fewer than 2 Representatives at the low end of my sliding scale), you still get equal representation in the Senate (which overcompensates on the population question; Delaware?  Wyoming? Really?), and how much power you get to wield is now driven by your efficacy, not your birthrate.

Wouldn’t Mississippi parents want the educational results of Massachusetts?  Would Louisiana cities and towns want the safe streets of Manchester, NH or Minneapolis, MN?  Wouldn’t Arkansas doctors welcome the healthy habits of Utah?  In my system, they’d much more likely to get what they want and need than they do in our current system of governance.

It never made a lot a sense to me that we would listen very long to a Representative from Mississippi weigh in on health care.  Or a Representative from Louisiana opine on educational policy.  Certainly, there are smart people in MS who care deeply about health care and know what their state needs to do to get better, but not enough of them to make a difference.  I bet they’d love to have more like minded people in Congress and my system would help ensure that happens.

Imagine.  Government that is based on demonstrated competence.  Now that’s something that would get my vote.

 

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