A Representative Legislature

Is having a national legislature which accurately mirrors the breakdown of the population at large–in terms of gender, ethnicity, region, sexual orientation, religion, economic level–a desirable ideal? That is, all else being equal, would having a legislature which is representative in these ways (to the degree that it was mathematically practicable) likely be better than a congress whose members were apportioned almost entirely by regional first-past-the-post elections, as ours is today? Why or why not?

Well, I guess the interesting question would be: why, do you think those things make us different in the eyes of the law?

Not in theory. In practice I don’t really see it anymore either. For all I care all of congress and the president could be black-hispanic pregnant females, so long as they did what they’d say they’d do. But, politics being what it is, that is pretty darn hard for any person of any creed, color, etc, to do.

But then again, I’m a male caucasian New Englander hetero atheist living in relative poverty (to my area). So perhaps I can’t say :wink:

It depends upon how far you apply the term “all else being equal”.

If, for example, our Heterosexual White Male Representative A understood, appreciated, and emphasized as much with civil rights as our Homosexual African-American Female Representative B, then there’d be less reason for such a proportional representation to matter. There’d still be some reason- a prominent African-American Senator would possibly encourage and hearten regular African-American citizens in a way that our nearly-total White Senate does not.

If, however, one were to stipulate that “all else being equal” does not include attitudes, perspective, and experience upon issues of gender and race, then perhaps a proportional representation might be better. Still, such a Congress would have the distinct disadvantage of threshold. That is, if we assume 1000 legislators, there could only be 186 African-American legislators. No more, no less, which brings up the question of how easy “all else being equal” would be able to be maintained in such an action (qualified African-Americans or whites being left out because “all your slots are filled”). Not to mention how those who attain less that that minimum threshold would have no chance of representation, whereas in our current system they have some chance.

So I’d say mixed. There would be some advantage for minorities who feel a distinct lack of role models or inclusion, but at the cost of thresholding. Of course, given that it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to come up with a situation where people can come from different races, sexes, religions, etc. and yet still have “all else be equal”, it’s probably more moot than mixed.

Well, it’s an interesting question.

Why is apportioning representatives by geography taken for granted? The reason for having representatives elected by their respective locales, as opposed to a British-style Parliamentary system, is that each representative is then forced to cater to the interests of his particular constituency. While geographical proximity can give certain people shared interests, other factors would probably be much more accurate. I have more in common with other white, middle-class college students on the other side of the country than I do with the impoverished hispanic family across the street.

As it is now, Congress represents the incredibly wealthy more than anyone else. Perhaps a system whereby the legislature is representative of income would be best. The top 5% in income would elect 5% of Congress, the bottom 20% would elect 20%, etc. I don’t know that this would be better than our current system, but it would certainly be more accurately representative.

Anyway, just a thought. . .

I think we need to expand the House of Representatives. We are at a ridiculous ratio of Representatives to Voters.
Give me around 10,000 Representatives and give the Senators back to the States and I think we would be about 90% of the way to solving campaign finance reform and making the gov’t more reflective of it’s populance.

And I also think John Corrado nailed it as far as the OP is concerned. I see two big problems with the proposition that, were Congress to be proportioned similarly to the general population “in terms of gender, ethnicity, region, sexual orientation, religion, economic level” it could better represent the interests of the people.

The first problem is that, to accept the truth of the proposition we must also assume that people who share “gender, ethnicity, etc.” must necessarily share political beliefs, and also that only those who share our specific backgrounds “in terms of etc.” can adequately understand those beliefs and represent them in government. While many people do feel this way, the assumptions do not have the weight of evidence behind them.

The second, and bigger, problem is that such a proposition seems to completely miss the point of representative government. It is not so that they’ll accurately mouth the prevailing opinion in their district that we send our representatives to Washington; it is so that they will represent the interests of their constituents through their understanding of the prevailing conditions in their district. They should of course do so in accordance with their stated political philosophy, which need not be the majority political philosophy of their district. Were we to mandate a strictly accurate reflection of popular will, this might be a more truly democratic society, but it would also remove all the benefits inherent in electing informed and accountable leaders; we may as well legislate through referenda and public opinion polls.

I go along with Freedom2 in calling for expansion of the HoR. I don’t agree that this would go that far (“90% of the way”) to solving campaign finance reform, but it would certainly lead to a more finely tuned representation of interests.

I am going to make a few assumptions that you can feel free to punch holes in if you wish.

Assumption #1.

The majority of the money available for lobbying is being used for lobbying.

Assumption #2. Compainies can not afford to throw their money at lobbying if they get zero return/results from it.

So if you had 10,000 reps in the (I know there is a minimum ratio laid out in the Constituion, but I’m to lazy to dig it up at this moment) HoR, then you have done several things. You have lowered the amount of money needed to get elected. You have increased the amount of people who need to support a bill in order for it to pass. You have made it very expensive for companies to buy their agenda through the HoR.

I think Reps would be a lot more resistant to compromising thier integrity for $3000 than they currently are for $100,000. I would also expect that the voter would pay more attention since it was a much more local election. Hopefully this would raise the percentage of people who vote and make the Rep more beholden to the actual voter instead of the donors.

Since this would propably make lobbying so astronomically expensive, I would expect many companies to cut back. At the very least the effect of their contributions would be reduced.
And then the Senate thing…

Repeal the 17th Amendment, and let the States appoint Senators to 6 year terms. I would expect that politics would enter into it in a way it does with Judges, but after they are appointed they would have a much greater latitude to do and say what they wanted since they don’t need to worry about campaigning for reelection or scoring high on all the polls.

This would still leave the problem of campaign finance reform on the table as far as the presidency goes, but that seems a minor issue to me once you fix Congress.

xeno sez:
Were we to mandate a strictly accurate reflection of popular will, this might be a more truly democratic society, but it would also remove all the benefits inherent in electing informed and accountable leaders; we may as well legislate through referenda and public opinion polls.

Yeah, mob rule. But there is already a tendancy to do this sort of thing with huge protesting and so on, trying to coerce politicians to take action on something they never intended nor said they would take action on. You know, “emergencies” like one kid dying in one lonely town somewhere getting national attention.

Anyway, I don’t agree with increasing the size of our legislative government at all. As it stands we have 450-some people in the house (IIRC) and I can’t even imagine trying to get 10,000 into one place none-the-less hold any meaningful conversation.

A more optimal resolution would be to consolodate federal government to being mainly an overseer and to return to a stronger form of States Rights stuff (optimal assuming you want to increase the size of the government in the first place).

Umm FYI, our representatives (MPs) are elected by local constituencies. Tony Blair represents the constituency of Sedgfield. (IIRC)

The House of Lords is unelected and I don’t think they think of themselves as “representatives” of anything but their party/class/insert-outmoded-concept-here.

Nice responses.

I really enjoyed John Corrado’s post, and he’s right in that by “all else being equal” I meant simply that there were sufficient numbers of of qualified people from each ethnicity, economic background, et cetera as to enable a rough approzximation of the population through legislature; I hadn’t considered the potential negative effects of a threshold, nor had I envisioned “all else being equal” encompassing across-the-board empathy toward particularized issues, since it was the theoretically potential lack of such empathy toward which I was aiming my question.

Also, xeno, I think that following John’s post leads you to partially misapprehend my own–which probably means I could have stated it better in the first place:

I don’t believe that this assumption is necessary. The dichotomy I was attempting to draw was one which paired a superficially representative legislature against one which was on its surface unrepresentative–that is, a legislature which happened to roughly mirror the composition of the population (achieved through happenstance rather than set thresholds and quotas) and today’s Congress dominated by rich, white males. Believe it or not, I don’t think this paces a value judgment on one over the other–indeed, that was the crux of my question: assuming equal ability by representatives of all creeds and colors, is there value inherent in having a legislature which happens to resemble the population at large? Do the terms of that question truly necessitate an assumption that no one who is not exactly like me can represent my interests? If so, I’ve misstated it, and the only answer is direct democracy.

But it seems as if you’ve taken my question to its extreme–unsurprising, perhaps, because of the extreme embodied in today’s legislature. Personally, I believe that the job of the legislator is what you outlined in the third paragraph of your post. I also think, however, that to some degree it certainly is difficult for a congressman, however capable, to understand the conditions experienced by his constituents if that congressman’s life experience is substantively different from those constitutents. And given that we have an electoral system which is, due to prevailing socioeconomic disparities, weighted toward producing representatives of a particular ethnicity, background, and income level…well, it strikes me that as much as a representative legislature wouldn’t guarantee full representation of all interests and all people, there are certain interests and certain people that are, under current conditions, being systematically underrepresented, both in perception and in practice.

Interesting ideas, Freedom. I’d still stump for a national senate, myself, but it seems as if we’re just coming at the same problem from opposite directions.

And given that we have an electoral system which is, due to prevailing socioeconomic disparities, weighted toward producing representatives of a particular ethnicity, background, and income level…well, it strikes me that as much as a representative legislature wouldn’t guarantee full representation of all interests and all people, there are certain interests and certain people that are, under current conditions, being systematically underrepresented, both in perception and in practice.

That’s a huge statement though no doubt statistically correct. What worries me about it is that those socioeconomic traits necessrily imply a mode of belief(that is, I don’t think they do and that’s what worries me about that statemetn). It probably does on many matters, but not enough to have a one-party state if you know what I mean.
I would also like to put another caveat on your “underrepresentation” idea. That assumes that all political ideas are equally correct and what seperates them is merely a matter of agreement and representation. I would challenge this outright. To not do so would be to accept, again, a moderate mob rule mob rule where what really matters is that every idea is heard. I, however, see no problem with systematic rejection in principle.
However, you do bring up the “in practice” issue. I am not sure exactly what you mean by this…who exactly is being underrepresented? Its hard to agree or disagree with this.

According to Article I Section 2, “The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative.”

This means, Freedom2, that you are not far off. According to the most recent census there are around 281 million in the US which would suggest a theoretical HoR of about 9,367. IMHO, such a figure illustrates how much the nation has grown since the number of Reps. was limited to 435 and how many people each member actually represents. I read that after reapportionment, each will serve about 600,000. I agree that such a figure is too high and that the size of the HoR should be expanded. But can you imagine how much additional crap you would have to listen to with 9,000+ politicians jockying for the mike?

Additionally, in a body with 9,000+ Reps, would the average citizen get better service? Or would gridlock be 20 times worse? I don’t know.


I agree that the lobbyist’s job would be more difficult with a larger House of Reps, but I don’t think it would be either costlier or less effective. The focus would change to the floor leadership and to key congressional districts rather than on individual candidates (which, admittedly might accomplish some of the goals of reform).

While I think the weak vs. strong federal gov’t discussion is a valid one, I hesitate to hijack the thread to pursue that.
Gad, OK, I followed your query to its extreme limit, and ended up beyond my intended target. I agree of course that certain sectors of our population are underrepresented in Congress, but I’m not sure a Congress with more resemblance to the population at large would cure anything. All else is NOT equal, and probably would not be with a different mix of ethnicities and backgrounds in Congress. As you point out, there are powerful socioeconomic factors which favor candidates of “a particular ethnicity, background, and income level.” However, I think those same socioeconomic factors would tend to foster practical underrepresentation of less advantaged population sectors, even if there were no perceived underrepresentation.

In other words, the basic equation of political power = economic power + moral visibility would not be substantially changed by adding the term like representation to the end. (IMHO, of course.)

Let’s put aside race for a moment, and consider other socioeconomic factors. Would we suspect that people elected to congress would have the same ratio of college graduates that the general population would? No, we would expect congress to have more college graduates than the general population. I’m sure there are some congresshumans with only a high-school diploma, heck there might even be one or two who didn’t graduate from high school.

But it is unsurprising that people who are qualified enough to get elected to congress are usually able to earn a college degree. I mean, one would HOPE that the average congresshuman has more on the ball than the average constituent, right?

And there are ethnic groups that are over-represented in government. I would imagine that there are more irish politicians than an unbiased sample of the population. And there is a bias against recent immigrants…a person has to be a citizen to be elected

So, even if everything were equal, everything wouldn’t be equal. We’d still have unrepresentative representatives…
Now, about a larger House. Well, I fail to see the attractiveness of 9000 house members. What exactly would this accomplish? Make it harder to lobby them? Well, perhaps, but it also would make each individual legislator easier to manipulate since they would be much less powerful. And how exactly would this body make decisions? Can you imagine 9000 legislators all trying to make comments on such and such a bill?

What this would do is drastically, drastically increase the power of the leadership. The leadership would write the bills, the rank and file wouldn’t get to debate them because there would be no time for debate. Everything would be decided by the committee chairs and the speaker and the rank and file would ratify it. And if a representative failed to fall in line, it would be much easier to replace them…after all, the national parties wouldn’t lose power through this. Which means that the lobbyists would only have to influence the leadership, not the rank and file. Which would make their job much much easier.

Insofar as the district representation/proportionality issue, some other democracies manage to work around this by keeping districts, but making them multi-member districts, rather than single-member first-past-the-post winner-take-all. However, trying to then render these “representative” by demographic, in a country as diverse as the USA to get any sort of that distribution you might have to provide 10 members per district, and you’d have a House of 4350 Representatives.

This in and of itself is not a fatal flaw, but would require some heavy adjustments that would defeat the purpose, for instance that the House in turn designate a more-manageable “general committee” to handle debate and such, and constitute all its 4350 members only for the final Yeas and Nays. This would mean many of the 4350 would never get a word in edgewise in the 2 years (hmm… is that bad?) and that all power would anyway be in the hands of the Leadership.

Of course, only a statute, not the Constitution, says there have to be exactly 435 districts. I could see a combination of statute and Amendment that could reduce the number of districts to 140-160 while tripling the number of representatives to near 1200. This would average out something like 8 members per (larger) district and allow for the party slate to work in “diversity.” I don’t see a legislature greater than 1200 able to function effectively.



So I don’t have all the details worked out.

But look at it this way…

If we used technology creatively, and didn’t try to cram everyone into one room, it could get done. Who says all 9,367 (thank you Xeno) need to be in the same room? And who said they all have to comment?

Right now we have 435 people making all the rules. Why can’t we let the dicussion be run by a small manageable number, and let the whole body vote yes or no? Change the rules, make them more conducive for a 9,000 member House. Force them to vote individually on each item, no more huge bundle packages. Use computers, let them cast their votes electronically. Put the bills online. Let the public read each small line item bill to be voted on and contact their Rep.

**Stop thinking in the box. **

This is 2001. These people never even have to go to Washington. Just think of them working at home, in their districts, with their constituents, instead of being off in DC. Think of them spread out, no huge target for the lobbyists to attack.
People could even get elected by knocking on doors and writing editorials in their local papers. 30,000 people is just two towns where I live. Can you imagine having congressional debates in your HS, local library and town halls EVERY election?

If you water down the power, then hopefully we will attract PUBLIC SERVANTS once more instead of celebrities.
Too many people with power would lose far to much if this happened, so I doubt anything close will ever come to pass in my lifetime. But if I saw ANY politician advocating it, I would be out there knocking on doors for them.

I think that there would be an advantage to Gad’s hypothetical “just happened to be elected” legislature. It would appear to be more representative. Perception should not be discounted; it is often more important than reality. ( Reagan joke omitted ) The appearance of empowered members of a group could encourage members of that group to participate in government, and thus empower them.

Is it desirable as an ideal?
Certainly, but would I favor adapting our institutions to create it? Maybe, but I’m not sure how far I would be willing to go. It is essentially a shadow and I wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice much personal choice to achieve it.

You know I love you for these threads, don’t you Gadarene?