Enlarge the House

Taxes have gone up, representation in Congress down

AS the people of Eastern Europe struggle to create new regimes based on public participation and political pluralism, it's appropriate for Americans to reflect on the health of our own more mature form of representative democracy. America's revolution was fought in protest against ``taxation without representation.'' Yet for the past half century we've allowed our per capita level of ``representation'' to slide while income taxes and social-security levies have climbed.

Using round numbers, the average congressional district after the 1980 census contained 520,000 people, yielding a per capita representation rate of 520,000. You get that figure by dividing the total US population in 1980 (225 million) by the number of members of the House of Representatives (435). The results of the upcoming 1990 census will probably report a total US population of around 250 million, meaning the per capita representation rate will increase to 575,000.

Compare this to the per capita representation rate enjoyed by previous generations. In 1930, for instance, the US population was 123 million. If you divide that by 435, you get a per capita representation rate in 1930 of about 290,000, virtually half what it will be in 1990.

Prior to the 1930 census, the number of representatives in the House increased routinely and periodically to take into account the growing population of the US. But the option of increasing the supply of representatives has been foreclosed since the late 1920s, when Congress passed a law capping the House at its current 435 members.

As a result, in spite of a doubling of the US population, the size of the House of Representatives has remained at its 1930 level. Had the supply of representatives kept pace with the population growth since 1930, the House of Representatives today would comprise some 870 members.

Members of Congress can't afford to be completely unresponsive to the public's demand for representation and access. Instead of increasing the number of representatives, the members of Congress have expanded such things as the size of staff and the budget for publicly funded mass mailings - things that also happen to enhance their own prestige and power.

The political system has made another supply-and-demand adjustment. If the supply of representation and access can't increase with demand, then access has to be rationed. Access becomes a marketable commodity. That's where PACs and fat-cat contributors come in. By joining a PAC, for instance, citizens pay a membership fee to an exclusive club that promises some form of access to a restricted process.

Another adjustment is Washington's inexhaustible growth industry - lobbying. It's been estimated that Washington has about one lobbyist for every Capitol Hill staffer - about 20,000. Boiled down to its essence, lobbying is the art of selling access - access to ``inside'' information (what is a crime on Wall Street is a virtue in Washington), access to individual members or key staff.

What we see in Washington is a kind of black market in access and political influence epitomized by the HUD scandal. Black markets often develop where official policies force a commodity to be overvalued. The black market in political access in Washington results in lobbying firms and PACs charging clients staggering fees for providing a commodity (namely, representation and access) that their clients have already paid for through taxation.

The Constitution stipulates two senators from each state, just as it mandates one president. But the Constitution does not set an upper limit on the members of the House of Representatives, the body that prides itself on being the ``people's house.'' Instead, the Constitution stipulates the minimum number of constituents each representative must represent. That number is - are you sitting down? - 30,000. It's a far cry from 30,000 to 575,000.

To be fair, even the very first Congress did not have a ration of 30,000 constituents per representative. The actual figure was more like 62,000 (65 members for 4 million people). But as the US population grew, so did the number of representatives - at least through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Why not increase the number of representatives from 435 to, say, 500? Or why not have 600 representatives? There's nothing magic about 435.

Other countries have substantially larger parliaments representing far fewer people. The British House of Commons, for instance, has 650 members for a population of 60 million. France, with a similar population, has a National Assembly with 577 members. Japan's Diet has 511 members for a population around 120 million.

Against my proposal some might argue that Congress is already unmanageable and that increasing its size would only complicate things. While I agree Congress has had trouble tackling tough issues, I'm not convinced that its ineffectiveness has anything to do with its size. Would 600 be that much less manageable than 435?

As the public and Congress consider the hot issues of 1990, maybe our declining per capita representation rate should be given some attention.

But by expanding the number of members, the House would also be diluting the power and importance of each individual seat. And politicians are not known for such acts of self-denial. As we're seeing in Eastern Europe, democratic reforms do not come easily. Improving our system will only come about if the public finally gets fed up and demands greater representation to match the current level of taxation.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.