Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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...Trying Out the New Constitution
George Washington's first term as President was much like a continuation of the Constitutional Convention, with many of the same participants.

Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.

George Washington in Philadelphia
Philadelphia remains slightly miffed that Washington was so enthusiastic about moving the nation's capital next to his home on the Potomac. The fact remains that the era of Washington's eminence was Philadelphia's era; for thirty years Washington and Philadelphia dominated affairs.

Population Growth: Constitutional Mathematics

Citizens and academics have little appreciation for the intense attention that politicians devote to the rules. By 1787, James Madison had read everything he could get his hands on related to voting procedures, representation, democratic and republican nuances, recent and past. Consider the size of the legislative body, a seemingly inconsequential matter.

{Constituents per Congressman Representative}
Constituents per Congressman

Remember, one way to prevent a particular decision, is to prevent any decision at all. Those who experience blockade by inaction, therefore legitimately argue that improving a committee means reducing its size. That is not invariably the case, because a committee containing inadequate wisdom will seldom be adequately wise. With effective procedures and experienced leaders, a legislative body of two or three hundred can remain productive and efficient. Whatever the limit is, it is safely larger than anything the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had in mind for the United States Congress. The convention concentrated instead on the number of constituents each congressman should have. Divide that number into the population of the nation, and you arrive at the size of the body without specifying it. It would be two centuries before America itself grew to the size where it was necessary to constrain the number of congressmen down to a manageable size. During the earlier years of the republic, there might be a concern that "the body" was too small and thus too easily controlled by personal dominance. But the nation would eventually grow to the point where the size of Congress had to be limited to around 500 members; that would eventually reverse some important considerations. If we ever reach a size where both the size of the body and the number of constituents per congressman are both undesirably large, there could be a lot of squirming.

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The House of Representatives has remained frozen at 435 since 1913. A law to remain at that size was passed in 1929. {bottom quote}

The focus the founders chose was the number of constituents each representative should have. Here, the argument was that a congressman representing a small group would likely respond to the narrow parochial interests of that small group, while a representative of a large group would more likely have many narrow interests to consider, thus be more likely to represent the interests of the nation as a whole. Natural conflicts between farmers and fishermen would illustrate this dynamic; small districts or less numerous ones would likely split between those representing fishermen and those representing farmers, large districts or more numerous ones would force the representative to respect the interest of both. Small districts would be more partisan, in this view. However, the founders recognized it becomes more difficult to influence a representative who has too many constituents. An amendment was even proposed to limit a congressional district to thirty thousand voters, but it was never ratified. While the electorate hesitated, the country grew to the point where three hundred million inhabitants would produce a House of Representatives of more than twenty-five thousand Congressmen, far too large to operate in anything resembling its present methods. Forced by population growth to choose between an unworkable legislative body, and the originally intended personal familiarity between Congressmen and constituents, the familiarity was sacrificed and political machines came to dominate the selection process, mainly at the level of the nominating primary election. It was probably unnecessary for political parties to become so partisan so soon, but the ultimate result was inevitable in a growing nation. Since many of the non-democratic nations who might consider adopting our system are already larger than we are, there is little doubt that the size limitations of deliberative bodies are presently inhibiting democratic transformations. Eventually, even we will have to confront the issue, and it is past time for us to be discussing what we would like to do.

It is disconcerting to reflect we have already experienced some examples of the power of the representation issue and seen it can have some major effects. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the number of members of the House and Senate was probably too small. The House soon grew to be the more powerful of the two because it had enough members to staff a wider variety of committees; in time the Senate grew more slowly and overtook the overpopulated House in influence. At present, the main problem is that both legislative bodies are being overshadowed by the enormous bureaucracy in the Executive Branch, with much longer average tenure and far less responsiveness to manageable electorates. Indeed, the elected representatives are slowly being forced to pander to the voting power of the bureaucracy in Maryland and Virginia, and the rural bias of state legislatures who have retreated to isolated rural villages in order to avoid the press and public scrutiny. Few people could now name their state representatives; in time that will be the destiny of Congressmen and Senators. The representation concern was widespread at the time of the founding of the country; it was accepted during the 18th Century that republics must remain small to remain republics. Madison found this to be one of the most serious obstacles to agreeing to a national republic, and he took considerable trouble to rebut it. This theory was behind the otherwise peculiar concept which Benjamin Franklin had advanced for many decades, which was that England and British America ought to have separate parliaments, united in allegiance to the same king. There seemed little difference between that commonwealth idea and the design of the Articles of Confederation with thirteen colonies reporting to the Continental Congress, so it was fortuitous that the abject failure of the Articles made it unnecessary to argue the merits of this multi-chamber approach at the Constitutional Convention.

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Article the first... After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less* than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more** than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons. {bottom quote}
Ratified but Never Acted On

Nevertheless, it was a serious concern, based on clear logic. The anti-Federalists were a national group, ultimately a political party of individualists hostile to overbearing top-down authority. Their cause was hampered by the plain failure of the Articles of Confederation, but nevertheless, they were legitimately very restless about a Congress with a weak perception of its duty to represent minorities. The anti-Federalists somehow envisioned each representative as a lawyer defending local interests at court. Indeed, in the days of a strong British monarchy, that was essentially how the British Parliament operated. As the King lost effective power to rule, ministries elected from within the Parliament took over the powers and attitudes of monarchs. In a sense, that was worse, because the districts lost their power to nominate their own representative, who was selected for them by the party leaders -- now acting in the role of substitute King. So that was no good, either, and the anti-Federalists even though collectively a majority, were basically supporters of the Articles of Confederation, and the Articles were a failure. They thus lost the ratification battle, but although soon taking over the government, had no better proposal to make. A few decades later the South seceded and essentially reinstated the Articles of Confederation in their own part of the country; once again the loose confederation idea failed.

In advancing his argument that a large republic was indeed going to be workable, Madison promoted the idea that a large constituency would produce statesmen of distinction. Only a person of great merit, wealth and effectiveness would be well enough known to be elected. Therefore, congressmen with large districts to represent would tend to be rich, well-born and famous. Senators would be even more so because they were selected by legislatures and governors (before the Seventeenth amendment), and thus the entire government would become progressively and permanently made up of the elite. Madison particularly liked this idea, because it seemed to solve what he considered the main flaw of an elected government. Poor people would always outnumber rich ones, and would inevitably use their voting power to enrich themselves at the expense of the upper classes. Constructing an elitist government by enlargement of congressional district size was thus a highly elegant design feature. Unfortunately for Madison, the scheme didn't produce that result.

Much has been written about the most famous about-face in American history when Madison the Federalist founder became Madison the leader of the anti-Federalist faction. Madison, George Washington's trusted Federalist agent, became Jefferson's anti-Federalist agent, and Washington never spoke to him again. Briefly, it has been speculated that the Virginia tobacco plantation culture out of which Madison had emerged, had begun to crumble, undercutting Madison's Virginia base. And it has been speculated that Hamilton's spectacular leadership of the American banking version of the Industrial Revolution unsettled Madison's earlier conviction that the Old Dominion of Virginia could easily rule the new nation. And it has been muttered that Madison, the ever-scheming politician, saw that his own future presidency would be more enhanced by Jefferson's popularity than by Washington's physical leadership in his lame-duck years. There may be still other important considerations in Madison's famous switch which we can only hope historians will be able to uncover. But there seems little doubt that Madison was able to see with his own eyes that the Congress of Merit, Distinction, and Success which he had imagined would result from large congressional districts, had in fact already in Washington's administration begun to deteriorate into the stereotype of professional politician which today's satirists and cartoonists are pleased to pillory in their blogs on the Internet. Madison had feared the poor would outvote the rich, but in fact, the main form this demographic took was that machine politics and special-interest factionalism essentially drove the natural leadership of gentlemen entirely off the stage. The rules changed; winning this game required aggressive power and organization, not just the offer of service.

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A committee containing inadequate wisdom will seldom be adequately wise. {bottom quote}

Over time, the relationship between the Senate and the House of Representatives changed, and the size of the membership had much to do with it. At first, the House was more powerful and prestigious. Direct election by constituents had more prestige than appointment by Legislatures. Later on, the Senate was a more suitable size as a deliberative body than the much larger House; running for election every six years was much to be preferred over running every two years. In the past century, the volume of work forced both bodies to develop a standing committee system. With five hundred members, the House could develop specialists in certain areas, and often a senior member in a safe district could remain in a topic area for thirty or more years. The Senate had fewer members, so each Senator is on several committees. Whatever the merits of a smaller deliberative body, the Senators have increasingly found themselves spread too thin, with new members taking too long to become expert, and older members too tired to keep up with everything. The consequences in both chambers have produced a phenomenon that even Madison never envisioned.

The legislative staff has continued to grow and has in general grown increasingly professional and proficient at their jobs. In general, the staff went to better Universities and got better grades there than the member they work for, and need not worry about running for election. Often having spent their lives immersed in a legislative topic, they know it cold. Consequently, we have all the makings of a "Yes, Minister," phenomenon in which the people who were not elected are more expert and more academically serene than the member who was elected, and who has the vote. The member and the staff member desperately need each other to succeed, but nevertheless, the potential for secret resentments and secret contempt is present every day in a highly tense environment of constant overwork. The present code word for this underseas warfare is that the Congress is "dysfunctional", a condition no one who has read much history would worry about. When Ronald Reagan introduced the idea of shrinking the government, and the younger George Bush actually tried to do it, the result was leaked to the newspapers and rumors to the effect that a President who had gone to Yale and had an MBA from Harvard, was a pumpkin. Just how serious all this is, and how exaggerated, is hard to say. But it is a concept that would have dominated the thinking of James Madison for months if it had ever occurred to him. We have entered an era of 1200-page bills, much of which the first surface in conference committees a few hours before the vote. Only a handful of members and a handful of staff know what is in these bills, and it can sometimes be a month after passage before the press discovers many buried features. The members cannot master these masterworks of legislation, so they get bigger by being patched. And by getting bigger, it is harder to master them. If, as someone like Ronald Reagan would genially remark, we just fired all the staff, then the bills would be reduced to one or two pages. In some ways, the legislation would be better, in some ways worse. But it would be different because maybe it should be different.

Originally published: Monday, July 06, 2009; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019