Sunday, May 23, 2004

Idle Speculation

There are two tweaks I've always thought would be good moves for the Federal governement.

First would be revoking the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of Senators. It was a bad idea promulgated by those who felt that the "people" should have more control in their government. That's not the purpose of the Senate, though. It was always intended to be the deliberative body of the Congress, slowing down and sometimes checking the hot impulses of the people-controlled House.

It was also intended to be the voice of the States in the Federal government, from a time when the idea of the Federal government being a collection of State governments still held sway. The House was apportioned by population, which gave great power to large and populous States, something smaller States feared. The Senate's construction was a compromise, intended to address those fears by giving equal weight to all States.

Revoking the 17th Amendment would stop the silliness of Senators being another "voice of the people" and restore weight to the long-neglected voice of the States. With issues like water and electricity, multi-State pollution, and cross-State population centers (ie. Memphis), we need to see the needs of States as bodies themselves returned to the public discussion. There's been a strong trend since the Civil War to deprecate the States to the Federal government and this would redress that imbalance to an important degree.

What we've seen in the Senate since 1913 was the rise of a permanent class of Senators. Quite a few have managed to survive in their careers despite their State's changing political affiliations, or even their own! We've seen incumbencies of almost ridiculour lengths, with "incumbent advantage" of almost insurmountable height. Since State legislatures, which would be the primary selector for most Senators if the 17th Amendment were removed, change their make-ups often enough to ensure some change in Senators, this is an outcome to be desired. Also, since the Constitution doesn't specify how States choose their Senators (only that they provide two), those States that desire direct election to continue can do that.

Of course, having said this I have to note that Tennessee would not have the two Republican Senators we now have if we went with State Legislative selection. The Naifeh/Wilder power stranglehold and the slim Democratic majorities in our Assembly would have assure two Democratics would be representing Tennessee right now. But on the other hand, I would think that with such a powerful tool in play, the Assembly's Republicans might have shown some backbone and asserted themselves more than they have.

The other change I would like to see is the expansion of the House of Representatives. It is presently "locked" at 435 total members, who represent roughly 625,000 people each. When the Constitution was first put into use, Representatives' population per district was about 50,000. I would like to see modern Representative districts comprised of about 250,00 to 300,000 people. That would balloon the House to about 1000 members!

Some of you are either rolling your eyes at this or are horrified that anyone of a libertarian streak would suggest more government. I say that this would serve to improve representation, diversify the House' demographics, and make corruption from lobbyists more difficult to achieve.

Let's look at Memphis, or more precisely Shelby County, which is divided and spread out among the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Districts. We have Representatives Marsha Blackburn in the Seventh District, Bart Tanner in the Eighth District, and Harold Ford in the Ninth. Two Democrats and a Republican. But look at a map of the districts! See how tiny and cramped the 9th is, compared to the sprawling and huge other two. The 7th and 8th are multi-county monstrosities. The fact that Blackburn represents Tennesseans from East Shelby County to Lower Nashville was a bone of contention in more than a few political circles.

Let's reimagine things. If we use 300,000 as our base, then for Shelby County alone, we would get three Representatives! That could create a western, Memphis-centered Democratic district, a Republican southeastern one, and a likely Democratic-moving-to-Republican northern district. Doesn't that sound a lot more like Shelby County than just Harold Ford alone?

Look at the rest of the State. West Tennessee gets a Dyersburg-centered distict and a Milan-McKenzie district. The city of Jackson, Madison County and surrounding counties become a district. Nashville gets two districts, and its southern suburbs become one as well. I'm not so familiar with the Eastern Grand Division, but I'm sure that some Knoxvegas Rocky Top bloggers can pick up the slack there.

Overall, Tennessee goes from nine districts to nineteen! How can this be bad?

Nationally, The House goes from 435 to 1000. Yes, that's a monstrously large body, but don't forget that we now have a massive communications and information infrastructure to support that, one not available to previous generations. Representatives are not only closer to a more intimate District, but in a newly built House (now there's an architectural design contest!) would be more in touch with each other.

Lobbyists lose some clout, as they now have many, many more people to talk to and persuade. That's all to the good.

Representatives presently serve on a large number of committees that deal with a lot of different issues. Many committees do valuable work, but must force Representatives to serve on them as there is a shortage of bodies and interest to go around. It's most often a case of putting bodies into seats, rather than a case of having opportunity to choose. Representatives could focus on whatever is their own personal specialty, or whatever main interest will most affect their Districts. More, narrowly focused committees will spring up, and you'll likely see Representatives doing more of their own work as their personal workload decreases instead of farming it out to staffers as is now the case.

One last potential advantage is that smaller districts open up the possibility for third parties to get into the picture. It's much easier to coordinate and canvass a small district, to get the message out and to persuade voters. The electoral threshold is a lot smaller.

The biggest gain is for representation. Representatives would be much closer to the Districts they serve. The likelihood of personally meeting them, even of getting a one-on-one meeting with your Congressman, goes up. Issues of importance to these smaller districts don't get swallowed up in the broader rhetorical issues of sprawling Districts. The House becomes a more responsive, more representative body.

I truly believe that these two actions, small in the doing and vast in the effects they would have, would go a long way to helping to improve our government.

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