George Will is largely responsible for my career as a pundit, largely because he called me an idiot.
The year was 1990. A man named Mappelthorpe became famous because some people thought we needed a pictures-of-a-bullwhip-in-the-tushy subsidy. A man named Noriega surrendered to American forces when told by priests he’d have to fold nun underwear for the rest of his life if he wanted sanctuary, and a fellow named Marion Barry was convicted of cocaine possession, which might have permanently hampered his political career if he didn’t have such a strong following in the “ex-offender community.”
Meanwhile a lad named Jonah Goldberg was attending Goucher College in Baltimore. World famous Tory columnist George Will visited Goucher for a lecture and a dinner at the president’s house. Goldberg, invited as a token conservative, struck up a conversation with Mr. Will. All was going swimmingly as they discussed mutual family friends and the like. Then, as the conversation moved to New York City, Goldberg mentioned that he had walked in Central Park at night from time to time with friends. Mr. Will responded, “well, that makes you an idiot” and walked away (he might have said “fool” it all happened so fast).
Fast forward two years to 1992. That was a heady year for politics. Young Goldberg has recently returned from a extended stay in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he attempted to be a starving writer but neither starved nor wrote. He is now a policy gnome at the American Enterprise Institute, whose purpose is akin to that of Christian monasteries in the Dark Ages — to keep the flame of civilization alive — until the universities are hospitable to reason again. Mr. Will is giving a lecture on the issue of term limits for congressmen. Young Goldberg, eager to redeem himself in his hero’s eyes, asks a provocative question of the indispensable conservative. He asks something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t another solution to the problem of entrenched incumbency be to expand the size of Congress to a few thousand members?”
Mr. Will, clearly oblivious that this earnest young man is the same he snubbed two years prior, responds by calling Goldberg an idiot again. Okay, he didn’t actually use the word “idiot,” but he did say with a chuckle that he couldn’t “imagine” an argument for something so preposterous. Young Goldberg looked very stupid in front of his new peers, colleagues, and betters.
But, if anything he was emboldened. He hit the books (Why hit the books? They didn’t do anything wrong, asked the couch). Determined to prove he wasn’t wrong or, at least, not an idiot, young, and comparatively thin, Goldberg wrote an article — “To Reform Congress, Enlarge It” — and sent it to the Wall Street Journal. Now here’s the really odd part: They published it. I sent a copy of my piece to Will, saying, in effect, “See, it can’t be too stupid. The Wall Street Journal ran it.”
The response? Silence. Silence for eight long years. And then, lo and behold, there it was. A column by George Will entitled, “Congress Just Isn’t Big Enough,” in which Will explains that, well, Congress just isn’t big enough.
Now, Mr. Will is a lot smarter than I am, but I’d like to think I had something to do with it, though I probably didn’t. Nevertheless, by this point you’re probably wondering what possible reason there could be for expanding Congress. Ninety percent of them are nattering slack-jawed bandersnatches, so why would we want more of them?
Well, here’s the argument in a nutshell. Congress is too damn small.
A Congress of Thousands
During and after the constitutional convention, one of the most contentious issues was how to calculate the proper number of representatives for our new democracy. Indeed, George Washington only interrupted the Constitutional Convention once on a substantive point: to express his concern that the proposed number of constituents-per-congressman ratio was too high.
The chief complaints were summed up by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. Such Dom DeLuise-sized districts, argued Madison, would not “possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents.” Worse, as the population grew, Congress would “be more and more disproportionate, by the increase of the people and the obstacles which will prevent a correspondent increase of the representatives.”
So how big were these massive districts? A stunning 30,000 Americans for every representative. In fact, the original plan was for 40,000 voters per seat, but George Washington implored the Constitutional Convention not to make districts so huge that House members would never be able to represent their constituents fairly.
Well, my original argument was based on 1990 decenial census data. But the new census data makes the case even better. Guess how many people the average congressman represents today? More than 600,000.
According to that ratio, the entire United States would have had fewer than seven congressmen in 1790, the year of the first census. Half of the 16 ratified states of 1790 wouldn’t have a combined population equal to a single congressional district today. The total populations of America’s five largest cities at the time — New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, Boston — would have yielded enough political clout to share one-quarter of one current representative.
Madison defended the relatively small number of representatives by pointing out that the size of the House would keep growing with the population. No doubt he couldn’t have anticipated that the United States would reach almost 300 million people by the end of 20th century or that Congress would freeze permanently its size at 435 seats in 1911 (except for two years when we added Alaska and Hawaii, for a total of 437).
But Madison did concede, in Federalist 55, that if Congress were to remain as small as it was in the 18th century for very long it could be an invitation to tyranny and corruption. Well, statistically speaking, the House of Representatives is much, much smaller today.
At the time of the first census, only Virginia had a population that exceeded 600,000 people. With 692,000 inhabitants, it boasted 19 representatives. Today, poor Montana, the largest single-district state, has 905,000 residents and only one representative. The “less democratic” Senate essentially allots one Senator for every 452,500 Montanans. And, neighboring Wyoming’s congressman represents a mere 495,304 voters. In effect, this means the average Wyoman’s (is that a word?) vote counts for just about twice as much as his Montanan neighbor’s. Even the vile 3/5ths clause of the U.S. Constitution gave blacks more representation. In effect, most Congressmen represent more people than Senators did during the lifetimes of our Founders.
If 1790 standards were applied, we would have no fewer than 9,300 representatives. Mr. Will wants to boost things to a mere 1,000 representatives, which would put us at the 1930 ratio. And remember: Madison’s standards — and the 30,000 number — were attacked by some as elitist and potentially tyrannical. So, why can’t we have a more representative democracy?
The first answer comes in the form of “more of the same” arguments. Congress already costs and spends too much; more representatives will mean more costs and more spending. Or critics note that government is already gridlocked and beholden to special interests. Adding a lot more congressmen would be like adding more monkey wrenches into the machinery.
It’s a fair concern, but would it really make things worse? An interesting attribute of a cacophony is that no matter how many more voices you add to it, a cacophony it remains. Moreover, these mammoth districts could be the source of our gridlock woes.
Couldn’t it be that congressmen are beholden to special interests because without the help of organized political groups like the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, or the NRA it’s almost impossible to win? More than 90 percent of incumbents win reelection; maybe that’s because congressmen have learned to represent coalitions of interest groups rather than actual communities. To the extent that supposedly “evil” money is corrupting congressmen, it is because they must pay for so much television advertising. In a congress of thousands, there would be no need because congressmen would have to rely on retail politics.
This would all be solved by simply expanding the size of Congress. It’s even conceivable that a Congress of thousands would lead to less, not more, pork. With a Congress of, say, 10,000, it would be impossible for the nation to withstand a new bridge, road, or military base in every district. The grade-school chewing-gum rule would have to apply: “If you don’t have enough (pork) for everyone, then nobody can have any.”
Of course, we’d have to cut congressional staffs and do a lot of voting electronically. So what? The real threat to democracy isn’t too many congressmen working too hard, it’s too many members of the permanent bureaucracy working too little. And electronic voting is hardly scary in the digital age. We could cut the staffs and increase the number of people accountable to voters.
I could really go on but I’ve already gone on long enough. I’m delighted that Mr. Will has finally come around to my way of thinking. And even though I will continue to revere him, I am also confident that he probably still thinks I am an idiot.
I wrote this while packing for my trip to the Hoover Institute at Stanford. I am sure I am forgetting lots of things, but one thing I did remember is to tell you that in the same Washington Post Outlook Section where Mr. Will writes about my wonderful idea, the wonderful Jessica Gavora has the cover article about college sports.