Weird Things We Do – U.S. Civics Edition

Question 1)

Why haven’t we repealed the 17th Amendment?

First some brief background. In the original Constitution, members of the House of Representatives were elected by the citizens, while members of the Senate were appointed by each State legislature. In 1913, the 17th Amendment was ratified and changed the selection of Senators to a popular vote. And so, to this day, we still elect both Representatives and Senators by popular vote.

This seems on the surface to be a good democratic development, but it doesn’t make much sense when you really think about it.

The reason we have a bi-cameral set-up of Congress is that the House of Representatives is meant to represent the people, while the Senate is meant to represent the States. Having Senators chosen by popular election makes the Senate obsolete at best, and nothing more than political aristocracy at worst.

‘We the People’ already have representation in the Legislative branch through the House. Representatives are chosen based on population (see Question 2 for a caveat) while there are simply two Senators per state. What I am trying to say is that the Senators don’t really represent the citizens (In California, the Senators are supposed to represent over 37 million people…I mean…really?) so, why do the citizens elect them?

Instead of being representative to the people who are electing them, Senators basically just use the Senate as a political stepping stone to higher positions in the Federal Government. As I mentioned, they are basically just a political aristocracy, puffed up with their own importance and serving no real civic purpose.

By repealing the 17th amendment, we could re-affirm the original intent of the Constitution when it comes to how the Federal Government is meant to operate. Representatives would still be elected by the voting age citizens and so would be the voice of their constituents. Senators would be appointed by each State legislature and would represent the interests and needs of each state government.

This would restore the balance to our legislative system which has gone completely out of whack. When Senators are directly elected by the citizens, it is not possible for them to truly represent their constituents. Rather, they represent themselves and the Federal Government. Why does the Federal Government need a representative for itself?

Question 2)

Why haven’t we raised the number of Representatives in the House since the 1920’s?

Let me go about backgrounding breifly. The Constitution provides for the Congress to re-examine apportionment after every Census. Apportionment in this case simply means deciding how many Representatives each State recieves based on their population numbers. There have been many mathematical models used to do this throughout the history of the country. I did some deep research (or maybe it was just Wikipedia) and tried to play around with the Jefferson method (based on the D’Hondt model). Quite frankly, as much fun as spreadsheets with 700 columns of data are, that is a process I will leave to the experts.

But, generally speaking, the total number of Representatives was increased after every Census (since the population has continued to grow). George Washington seems to have strongly believed that there should be no less than 1 representative for every 30,000 citizens. With advances in communication and technology that number of 30,000 is not a good benchmark today. (To keep that ratio, we would need a House of Representatives with almost 10,500 members).

There was a combination of increasing the number of representatives as well as incresing the number of people each Representative would have as constituents from 1790 all the way to the 1920’s. By the end of the 1913, there were 435 Representatives. Through some machinations of Republicans (yes, my chosen party has had it’s ups and downs) Congress did not act to reapportion it’s numbers after the 1920 Census because the Census results would likely have taken away Republican districts. Further, in 1929, they passed the aptly named Reapportionment Act of 1929. This law set the number of Representatives at it’s current level of 435. After the passage, all of the Republicans who supported it twirled their Snidely Whiplash mustaches and laughed maniacally. There were provisions for the addition of states, but those temporary additions would then revert back to 435.

Technically, any future Congress could change this and create a new Apportionment Act with each and every Census.

But, no one has.

Since 1929.

In 1929, there were an average of 282,241 citizens for every Representative.

Today, there are over 700,000.

To simply keep the same ratio as we had in 1929, we would need to have about 1115 members in the House of Representatives. So, it’s clear that even maintaining past ratios gets unwieldy.

But, still.

We have the additional issue of the fact that each State’s Legislature is tasked with drawing their own Congressional Districts after the apportionment numbers are given. [While the total number remains at 435, some states lose Representatives while others gain some due to population shifts]. Such practices created the phenomenon of ‘gerrymandering’ – drawing districts in such a way that they are bound to vote for one party or another.


Conclusion –

We have flipped the original intention of the Constitution when it comes to Congress. Citizens directly elect Senators who can’t possibly reasonably represent them. Meanwhile, State Legislatures effectively decide who will go to the House of Representatives through re-drawing districts in ways favorable to a certain party.


While this gives us a wacky sort of balance, it is just silly.

Repeal of the 17th Amendment is currently fringe-ish in support. But, there have been recent efforts to force Congress to examine Reapportionment in a serious manner. I imagine most people take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance which is why these strange practices haven’t changed since the 1920’s.

Nevertheless, correcting these two mistakes would make for worthwhile reforms, in my opinion. Perhaps unfortunately, the Tryanny of the Urgent will likely keep these fixes from happening in the near future. But, it would make me happy just to know that growing numbers of people were informed and aware that when it comes to electing Congress, we are doing it wrong.

2 thoughts on “Weird Things We Do – U.S. Civics Edition

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