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Representative Flat Line Hurts Democracy

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 09:58


Running even a losing campaign for the House of Representatives costs a lot of money. Just ask Bridget Fleming, who brought in just over $2 million in last year’s cycle — about twice as much money as that given by donors to the eventual winner, Nick LaLota. But even added together, Ms. Fleming and Mr. LaLota’s total is vastly overshadowed by the nearly $4.3 million that former Representative Lee Zeldin raised in 2020.

With elections every two years, it has been said that the main job of a representative who wants to remain in office is fund-raising. This puts them at a great distance from actual voters, something exacerbated by today’s congressional district populations, which in turn means that politicians have to raise ever more money to reach enough of them to win. It is a vicious cycle, locked in place by an outdated law that caps the number of seats in the House of Representatives. Writing in The Washington Post this week, Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, argued convincingly that the system is in need of change.

In 1790, congressional districts had about 34,000 residents each. Now, the districts have more than 20 times that, roughly 762,000 people apiece. Since 1929, the House has been locked at 435 members, which, as the national population rises, means that representatives are getting further and further from the people they are supposed to represent. Case in point: When he was in the House, Mr. Zeldin almost never bothered to visit East Hampton. And Mr. LaLota, too, has focused his attention on the more-populous western end of the district. Where once the so-called “people’s house” was just that, today it has become more like a mini-Senate, for which localized concerns are mostly an afterthought. Assuming that the members of the House really want to interact more often with the voters who put them in office, the way the system has evolved makes that extremely difficult.

Ms. Allen frames the issue in a global context, too. Among progressive democracies around the world, the United States is the only one that has not changed the size of its rulemaking assembly in about a century. That has left the U.S. with the largest number of constituents per representative of any of the 28 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As an example, she offers Germany, which has 700-plus representatives in its lower house but only a quarter of our country’s population.

One of the core principles of the U.S. Constitution is that citizens are supposed to hold power over government. Ms. Allen cites the Federalist Papers’ call for “due dependence on the people” as key. The problem that arises today is that elected

officials must satisfy their donors first in order to amass enough money to seek or retain office. As districts get bigger, the need for cash to run campaigns gets even greater.

The representative flat line is not limited to the people we send to Washington. Town boards in New York State have five voting members: a supervisor and four council members. There were about 16,000 people living in East Hampton in 2000; today there are more than 28,000, but the number of board members has not kept pace. Also in East Hampton, the local Democratic committee has had a lock on board control, given an overall shift in voter registration here away from Republican. An absolute grip on power is never a good thing, no matter how much individual board members might be trusted. Were town boards in New York allowed to grow along with their respective populations, so too might the opportunity for balanced government — just as the founders envisioned it. 


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