Management & Labor

'Rightsizing' the Legislature

I can't imagine many of you have been to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. But I can help visualize it for you: Just close your eyes and think of an old public high school auditorium.
by | July 2001
 

I can't imagine many of you have been to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. But I can help visualize it for you: Just close your eyes and think of an old public high school auditorium.

You know, a big room with row upon row of somewhat worn leather- cushioned seats and a podium at the front. A room that looks like it's been through about 50 years' worth of assemblies, PTA meetings and performances of "Our Town."

There's a reason why New Hampshire's chamber is so big: The House has 400 members, more than any state legislative body in the country. The chamber has to be the size of a an opera house just to get all of them seated.

For a long time, some people have thought this a less-than-ideal environment for conducting the deliberations of the democratic process. Thirty years ago, the Citizens' Conference on State Legislatures portrayed the New Hampshire House as a place where 15 people made all the decisions, and if you were among the other 385, you just watched, "part of an onlooking audience rather than a full- fledged member." The citizens' group raised the very legitimate question of why New Hampshire, which then had about 700,000 people, was supporting a legislative body the size of a small battalion, while California, with nearly 20 million people, was getting by with an Assembly of 80.

It's still a good question. As you probably guessed, the New Hampshire House is as big and unwieldy today as it was in 1971. Every once in a while, something happens to suggest this might not be entirely harmless. Last November, among the 400 candidates selected to sit in the House of Representatives, voters chose a convicted forger and a man who had urged violence against police.

State officials who were asked about this responded by saying roughly the same thing: Who can keep track of that many candidates? "It is difficult, if not impossible," admitted Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic Party chair.

On the other hand, Sullivan said, that's no reason to tamper with tradition by reducing the size of the House. "I have a great fondness for our legislature," she declared. "I like the idea that so many people have an opportunity to serve." The voters seem to agree with her. For all the jokes about New Hampshire's overstuffed House, no serious moves to trim it have been made.

And in the end, who's to say New Hampshire is wrong? When it comes to the size of legislatures, beauty--and efficiency--are very much in the eye of the beholder. A small state with a 400-member House of Representatives may seem a little wacky, but I can't prove that it leads to inferior public policy, and neither can anybody else.

Back in the 1970s, the Citizens' Conference recommended that the ideal size for the lower house of a bicameral state legislature was 100 to 130, and that the two chambers together should have no more than 150. But only a small number of states fell within that relatively narrow range at that time, and only a dozen do now.

The truth is that there will never be consensus on how many legislators it takes to change a law. James Madison realized that when he wrote the U.S. Constitution. "No political problem is less susceptible of a precise solution," he wrote in the Federalist No. 55, "than that which relates to the number most convenient for a representative legislature; nor is there any point on which the policy of the several states is more at variance."

Madison thought there was such a thing as a dangerously small legislative body; he also thought there could be a dangerously big one. "Sixty or 70 men may be more properly trusted with a given degree of power than six or seven," he reasoned. "But it does not follow that six or seven hundred would be a proportionally better depositary... the number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude."

More recent critics have made a slightly different version of this point. They have argued that big legislatures are unwise not because of any temptation to mob rule, but because they encourage wasteful log-rolling and exorbitant demands by too many individual members from too many districts.

Academics have tried to study this issue empirically. Last year, two professors at the University of Southern California, Thomas Gilligan and John Matsusaka, published a paper in which they concluded that bigger legislative bodies, at least bigger Senate chambers, do throw more dollars around. "The more seats in the upper House of the legislature," they wrote, "the more the government spends and the more revenue it collects... A one-seat increase in the upper house is associated with a 0.38 increase in total spending."

This is interesting. If you were to apply it to New Hampshire, the model you presumably would get is a cheapskate Senate (the fourth- smallest in the country) struggling mightily to rein in the wasteful log-rolling tendencies of the enormous House. The last time I looked, however, both chambers in the Granite State seemed pretty parsimonious to me. Both are reluctant to endorse any new form of taxation, despite being mandated by a court to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in new funds for education. I'm not sure size is the crucial variable here.

Every once in a while, however, a state does decide that not having quite so many legislators would be in the public interest. Seven years ago, the voters of Rhode Island decided to shrink the size of both their House and Senate. Effective in 2003, the House will go from 100 members down to 75, and the Senate from 50 to 38. The voters did this in a mood of anger at the entire institution of state government, having in the previous decade witnessed a bank scandal, a pension scandal, the indictment of a governor and the forced resignation of two chief justices.

It's not that the current Rhode Island legislature is abnormally large. It actually fits within the old Citizens' Conference guidelines. On the other hand, Rhode Island is small in population and tiny in geography. The House districts include fewer than 10,000 people and cover an average of 8 square miles. If these districts were the same physical size as the national average, the Rhode Island legislature would have only three people in it--a little small even by Madison's standards.

But Rhode Island's decision has nothing to do with Madisonian political theory; it has everything to do with a visceral sense that fewer people means less mischief. "The bloated size of the assembly," an editorial in the Providence Journal proclaimed in 1999, "has not meant that the Ocean State's legislators are `closer to the people'... the effect has been to make Rhode Island legislatures too often the tribunes of small and remarkably selfish interest groups."

A letter-writer to the Journal put it a little more succinctly. "Fewer legislators," he declared, "means fewer brothers-in-law that have to be found state jobs." An effort to cancel the upcoming downsizing failed within the legislature itself two years ago.

While Rhode Island was debating the effects of its impending shrinkage, Nevada was fighting over the opposite idea: making its legislature bigger. In this case, the argument is unrelated to efficiency. It's related to demographics.

Actually, it's pretty simple. The southern part of the state, around Las Vegas, has been growing exponentially. The north is not keeping up. As a result, Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County are now entitled on the basis of population to 70 percent of the legislative seats.

There's nothing the northerners can do about that--districts have to be drawn on the basis of population equality. But there's no law saying the legislature can't get larger. That way, rural areas can have more representation, even if their ultimate share of political power is shrinking. Rural legislators can be spared the burdens of representing constituencies that stretch for 300 miles.

This issue all but shut out other topics during the state legislative session this spring. The southern contingent wasn't particularly accommodating. "I don't think we need to grow the size of government," said the Las Vegas-based Senate Democratic leader, Dina Titus. "The public has said the legislature should do its business in less time and spend less money."

The debate raged on into June and prevented the members from finishing their business by the date of scheduled adjournment. In the end, a special session voted to leave the size of the legislature as it was, pacifying the northerners with a deal on congressional redistricting.

Regardless of Nevada's decision, growing a legislature is nearly always politically easier than shrinking one. Between 1902 and 1990, 50 state legislative chambers in this country were enlarged by statute or referendum. Only 11 were made smaller.

And other than the Rhode Island downsizing--done by the electorate, not the members--no state has gone for shrinkage in recent years. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura has spent much of his term arguing that the current 201-member legislature should be pared down to a one- chamber body with just 135 seats. But that proposal has gone nowhere.

It's significant, however, that this was a gubernatorial initiative. Political executives at all levels who have to wrestle with big legislatures emerge convinced that they are just too much to handle.

This includes, by the way, Bill Clinton. In May 1998, as a Republican Congress pursued him for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton paid a visit to Delaware and couldn't help remarking on the cozy friendliness of its 41-seat House and 21-seat Senate, the third- smallest combined total in the country. "I like the feel of your legislature," Clinton told the members. "I like the size of your legislature. I wonder if it would take a constitutional amendment to reduce Congress to this size. It's a wonderful idea."

But not everybody sees Delaware as Clinton does. A few weeks ago, the leadership of the state House introduced a bill to increase the size of the chamber by four seats. A bigger legislature, Speaker Terry Spence said, "is in the best interest of the constituents."

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