Here’s my opinion on governance in the US: it is not sufficiently democratic, it is not usefully republican (in the political philosophy sense of republicanism), and it is inappropriately federal. The US senate apportions political power according to arbitrary lines, resulting in enormous iniquity of representation. Individual members of congress have enough power to single-handedly delay the functioning of our government–even when the bills thus delayed have overwhelming bipartisan support. Major cities are hampered by state lines that bisect these cities, limiting their ability to provide public services and infrastructure to their citizens. On the other hand, small neighborhoods can defect from their broader cities and institute exclusionist policies that harm nearby residents–regardless of the dependence such neighborhoods always have on the broader cities to which they belong.
One fantasy solution would be to redraw state boundaries, maybe like this:
This map was designed with the goal of balancing the population of the fifty states–and thus reduces the senatorial representation of the “big rectangle states in the middle” by over a dozen. California, Texas, New York, and Florida are afforded substantially more representation. However, this is basically impossible: changing the rules in such a drastic way would require the assent of all those rectangles, who will never support such a plan. And with good reason: it isn’t a very fair outcome to change the rules in the middle of the game, for one, and also because any political realignment must respect the sovereignty of the states, which doesn’t seem likely in the circumstances.
So, what should be done instead? I offer one long-term hope and a couple of somewhat more plausible projects.
1. The Senate should go the way of the House of Lords. This is my long term hope: a slow evolution of legislative norms (rather than laws) by which the senate evolves down a path that culminates in the rubber stamps that the House of Lords is known for. Because it isn’t the only representation for any given state, it’s possible that this could happen–just vanishingly unlikely. Still, it’s easier than either state redrawing or abolishment, and about as effective. Unfortunately, we’ve been going down the opposite path lately, where individual senators and underwhelming minorities have been claiming more power under its arcane rules, rather than less. If this were to occur, however, it would divert legislative authority to the more democratic house. While the senate prefers to style itself the “greatest deliberative body in the world”, it is more accurately described as a bone thrown to slaveholders in exchange for signing off on the Constitution (amongst other bones like the 3/5th compromise). Instituting a culture where its stature is diminished to the point of rubber-stamper would rightly banish this anti-democratic body to the bust-bin of history.
2. Increase the size of the House by a factor of at least 10. Preferably, the house could expand to as large as 10,000 representatives, and grow further with future population growth. Unlike changing the Senate, this would be in line with the stated views of the framers of the constitution. Washington, for instance, thought that having a single representative for every 40,000 people provided inadequate representation, and pushed for the constitution to enshrine a guideline of one representative for every 30,000 people. The first proposed amendment to the constitution actually sought to cap the ration at one representative for every 50,000 people. What are we at now? One rep per every 718,346 people.
House districts are far too large to enable effective communication between a representative and her constituents. When I attempted to contact my congresswoman around the time of the health care reform vote, I was unable to get through via phone for the entire week. I settled for an email, which I can’t imagine was read by anyone important. But, communication is key to understanding, aggregating, and representing the views of the district–views that are ever-more difficult to aggregate as the size of those districts swells.
These issues of aggregation fuel contentious redistricting fights every decade. How should a large, diverse city be split up–an equal number of Red and Blue districts, or all purple with a representative balance in each? If current congressional districts were divided into 20+ smaller ones, this problem would diminish significantly. Of course there would still be conflicts, but instead of a community of 500,000 being susceptible to district straddling, they would now receive a 16 votes for sure, with one district straddling into another community. These representatives would be substantially more, well, representative!
But the benefits don’t stop with geographic representation. The more representatives in the legislature, the less power any individual has. Any potential coalition has more ways to get to a majority, diminishing the number of demands that a legislator can extract in exchange for votes. On the Health Care Reform bill, a couple of senators and a number of representatives demanded ideological and pork-style concessions–and these were granted, as those votes were necessary. Even if the same portion of legislators is needed to pass a vote, the demands of 200 legislators are less likely to lead to individualized pork than the demands of 2, and more likely to lead to legitimate outcomes that reflect the will of the majority.
Such a change in representation would also help the US restake its international claim as a beacon of democracy. For now, that mantle is perhaps best applied elsewhere: the UK House of Commons has a legislature of 650–larger than the US–and a representative/population ratio of about 1:100,000. Many places go even further. In the Nordic countries, the ratio is around 1:25,000-30,000 (and is as small as 1:5,000 in tiny Iceland). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these countries are generally regarded as particularly effective democracies. On the whole, I think the change would do us good.
3. Grant tax authority to inter-county metropolitan areas. This follows from my long-standing focus on cities, and their importance in our economy and society. The New York Combined Statistical Area encompasses countless cities across 30 counties in four states, and claims as resident one out of every 14 Americans. The largest share of these people live within New York City itself, and an even larger share commute in for work. However, the City itself has only limited ability to lay taxes on these workers–taxes which provide services that these workers readily consume. If they raise income tax rates, it is easy and common for workers to move to New Jersey, or to Long Island, or to Connecticut, or Poughkeepsie. The distant suburbs provide access to the labor market and amenities of New York City while sheltering their denizens from paying their share for the institutions and infrastructure which ensure the city’s functioning.
On the other hand, the broader Combined Statistical Area contains the overwhelming majority of workers in the city. This is because CSAs (like Metropolitan Statistical Areas, or MSAs, and Micropolitan Statistical Areas, or µSAs) are defined according to cross-county commuting: places with integrated labor markets that cross county lines are added together. These definitions by the OMB are used for a variety of economic and social analyses. My claim here is that they should also be used for political purposes. They are the optimal level for providing services crucial to the functioning of a city, such as transportation infrastructure, as well as the optimal level for taxing footloose labor. They avoid the problems of municipalities (too narrow) and states, which often divert resources from cities like New York to the rest of the state and prevent New York from implementing solutions to its own problems.
Of course, as mentioned above, there’s no real way to replace current states with something better. Instead, I propose laying a new web of flexible political entities corresponding to CSAs or MSAs (whichever is larger–a CSA can include multiple MSAs). Depending on the cooperation of the states, this might be doable without a constitutional amendment–after all, there are already metropolitan transit networks that cross state and county lines. The taxation authority might be constitutionally trickier, but I think it would be worth it. And unlike the first proposal, there aren’t obvious losers here: why would a state like Nebraska stand in the way of allowing New Yorkers to tax themselves at higher rates? New York State might not like it as much, and it would require that states are foremost and will have no taxation or other authority infringed upon. But again, if the New Jersey-based residents of the New York CSA wish to tax themselves at a higher rate than southern Jerseyites, this shouldn’t be problematic to Chris Christie or the state of New Jersey. Those individuals who’ve moved from Manhattan to Stamford will face higher taxes–but they’ll also benefit from the increased services provided. All else equal, it will make Manhattan more attractive relative to the suburbs. This would have the side benefit of reducing commuting congestion, enabling any transportation investments to reap even greater rewards. Furthermore, the benefits of density are well documented. Furthermore, these governmental units could provide a basis for some of the other economic reforms that I’ve proposed. On the whole, it seems that it this reform would enable more efficient local governance while reducing the hurdles currently faced by our most productive cities.
There’s my three hopeful ideas for the future of governance! Of course, they wouldn’t fix everything, but I think they would help solve some of the problems I outlined. CSAs would provide a basis for more useful local representative democracy, smaller congressional districts would enable more precise representation on the national level, and the diminution of the senate’s role would reverse some of the iniquities embodied in the arbitrary nature of state lines.