Friday, August 18, 2017

The U.S. House of Representatives: An Aristocratic Democracy-Deficit?

The abrupt resignation of Jesse Jackson, Jr., from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 only weeks after being re-elected gave Democratic politicians in Chicago a rare opportunity to get their hands on a Congressional seat. The New York Times observed at the time that such seats “in Democratic strongholds” of Chicago “do not come open very often, and when they do, a line forms fast.” According to Debbie Halvorson, who ran against Jackson, “If someone is thinking of becoming a congresswoman or congressman, this might be their only chance. Whoever gets this will have it forever, they say. That’s why everyone wants to take a chance.” In other words, the office is a sort of personal entitlement. From a democratic standpoint, this represents “slippage.”

The reason for the two-year term in the U.S. House is to render the representatives responsive to their respective electorates or constituents. The six-year term in the U.S. Senate was chosen for precisely the opposite reason—that such a term would give the senators some breathing room from the “real-time” demands of their respective states. The bicameral result would ideally be a check and balance of the people’s momentary passions and deliberation on the country’s best interests beyond today. Having a House seat “forever” renders its occupant immune, at least potentially, from having to respond legislatively to contemporary demands “back home.” Indeed, having the job for life, an incumbent might even move to Washington, D.C., with only occasional visits “back home.” With only 435 members representing a combined population of about 310 million (as of 2012), the U.S. House is already aristocratic in nature; a re-election rate for incumbents up for re-election of over 90% and certain seats being virtually life-time appointments render the “people’s House” akin to a House of Lords.

Because the U.S. Senate was intended to represent the propertied interest as well as the states, an aristocratic House gives the elite too much institutional power in the U.S. Government. Other things equal, the democratic element—that of the people—will in theory eventually revolt. Were the imbalance in favor of the masses, the propertied would soon “opt out” too. Hence, the delegates at the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787 intentionally fashioned a federal government reflecting “the one, the few, and the many” in a sort of balance.

The U.S. President is “the one”—the antecedent being the imperial monarch. The U.S. Senate and the U.S. Supreme Court both refer to “the few.” The U.S. House, being at first the sole repository of democracy in the U.S. Government, was to represent “the many.” As in juggling, if one ball joins one of the others rather than there being three separated equidistantly, the balance is off and all of the balls are likely to be dropped. At the very least, the pernicious impact of the imbalance can be lessened by shifting domains of authority back to the governments of the member-states.

                                    Even though the U.S. House Chamber looks large, it represents 310 million people.   Source: Britannica

Additionally, the U.S. House could be enlarged to the size of the European Parliament—both containing representatives of a people spanning an empire in scope. Lest it be concluded that such a size is nonetheless unwieldy for a legislative body, it could be argued that the “extended republic” has become too big for even a “repository of democracy,” in which case we are back to the notion that power could be transferred back to the states—many of which have populations equal to or exceeding that of the United States when the U.S. Constitution was formulated and ratified.

Accordingly, several of the states might consider adopting federalism—the states’ “states” (i.e., provinces, “countries” (in UK), cantons, or lander in European terms) might be as the early state legislatures were in the early United States (i.e.., citizen representatives serving for a time). Put another way, the large and medium republics in the U.S. as of the end of the twentieth century at least may themselves be commensurate with the early U.S. as a whole from the standpoint of population and representative democracy. Even so, the diversity within a given state is not as great as that which exists even in 2012 from state to state. Europeans who travel from New York to Miami and on to San Francisco and maybe Utah discover that the United States do indeed differ cultural, albeit in different ways perhaps than the member-states do at home in the European Union. Even though less diverse internally than interstate, some of the United States are internally diverse enough—and populous enough—to warrant the application of federalism to those republics such that legislatures covering a number of counties could be formed and given a portion of the state’s remaining sovereignty. Just as the E.U. deals directly with regions of states, the U.S. could as well.

In short, the U.S. House of Representatives, being in many respects an aristocratic body—the advent of which some of the founders, particularly the anti-federalists, anticipated back in 1787—enlarging that chamber democratically AND extending federalism down into the states could lessen the democratic deficit in the system overall.  

Steven Yaccino and Monica Davey, “Illinois Sets Election Dates to Replace Jackson in House,” The New York Times, November 27, 2012.