Bigger Is Sometimes Better For Largest US Legislature

WHEN New Hampshire's Legislature is in session, state representatives enjoy the advantages and disadvantages of a truly full House.

Here on the crowded House floor, seats are jammed so close together it is sometimes comical. In one row, four men stand up to allow a woman room to squeeze past them to her seat. Two seconds later, she's up once more, causing the same four to scramble to their feet again. Another legislator, also trapped in mid-row, decides the cleanest exit is to simply vault backwards over his chair into the open aisle.

With all its 400 members, New Hampshire has the distinction of having the largest legislature of any in the United States - and the fourth largest in the English-speaking world, says state Rep. Cliff Below (D) who has done a study on the issue.

When it comes to representation, this small state with a population of only 1.1 million wins the prize. Among the other states, Pennsylvania's House, at 203 members, comes in second. Highly populated states don't even begin to compare: California's state Assembly has 80 members, New York's state Assembly has 150, and Texas' House of Representatives has 150.

New Hampshire's House, known as a ``citizen legislature,'' comes from a tradition of strong local government. But for many here, the large-size Legislature is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, lawmakers enjoy a close relationship to constituents; the ratio is approximately 1 representative per 2,773 people. On the other hand, getting things done in such a large body can be cumbersome.

``One problem is just getting to know people,'' says Representative Below, who was elected in 1992. ``It has taken 1 1/2 years [for me] just to get up to speed in terms of knowing who the players are.''

But strong citizen participation is considered a plus in this Legislature where few ``career politicians'' take refuge. That's because representatives are paid only $100 a year and have either full-time jobs or are retired.

In fact, approximately half of the members are retired, which is double the rate of any other state. The average age for a representative is 58.

Women are also highly represented, with 33 percent of the House membership female, the fourth highest percentage of any lower house in the country.

In such a large Legislature, turnover is high. House Speaker Harold Burns (R) says since one third new House members are elected every two years, government stays focused on representing its people.

``It certainly would make each individual legislator a lot more powerful if we cut the size of the House in half,'' says Speaker Burns. ``But that's why [the public] is upset with Washington, because they think [legislators] get too much removed and stay too long.''

But some lawmakers complain about the unwieldiness of such a large body. A typical committee size is approximately 21 people, for example, making it difficult to get work done quickly or have enough time for all to ask questions, says Mr. Below.

Another concern is the influence of lobbyists. Since the number of House staff is kept small due to budget constraints, lobbyists tend to supply a lot of research work.

But Speaker Burns counters that lobbyists don't have as much influence in elections as in other states; it can cost under $500 to run a Granite State legislative campaign.

Over the years, attempts have been made to trim down House membership as well as beef up the Senate which, in sharp contrast, has only 24 members and is the fourth smallest in the country.

But changing the size of either body requires a constitutional amendment. Below favors the ``citizen'' legislature but wants to reduce it to 240 or 300 members.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dana Hilliard (D) filed a bill in February to put the issue to the voters in a ballot question but the measure was narrowly defeated.

Since the job is so low-paying, only the wealthy, the retired, or the ``lucky'' as he calls it, are able to serve, says Mr. Hilliard, a college student who puts himself in the third category.

So why do New Hampshirites continue to resist changing the large size of their Legislature?

``I think there is a fear about losing our citizen legislature, our uniqueness,'' says Below. ``and a fear of having professional politicians, which we don't have.''

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