Demographic shift

By Megan McArdle

This is a really interesting post on the ways that population shift has made our government structures obsolete:

  • The ratio of small-state to large-state populations has increased. In 1790, Virginia had 12.5 times the population of Delaware. Today, California has 70 times the population of Wyoming. In 1790, Senators representing 14.7% of the population could sustain a filibuster under today's rules; today, that figure is 9.9%. I'm fine with the somewhat countermajoritarian nature of the Senate, but it's clear that things have gotten a little bit out of hand.

    . . .


  • Travel is much faster, but the country is much larger. As recently as the 1960s, DC airports didn't have direct flights to much of the country. The common practice of Congress was to stay in the District for seven months, then stay in their home state or district and meet with constituents for five months. Today, most members fly home every weekend, even during session. This puts tremendous strain on Western members, who must endure six hour flights while their colleagues in New York can catch an hourly shuttle that gets them home in 45 minutes. At this point, it seems fair to consider moving the capitol, or at least having an auxiliary capitol that might be used every other year. The population center of the US is currently in central Missouri and continues to march West, so either moving the capitol to Kansas City, or putting a secondary capitol in Denver should do the trick.

    Somewhat separately, there is now tremendous pressure to be in one's home district all the time. When combined with the crush of fundraising, this limits the time that members have to collaborate with one another. We ought to make Constitutional provisions to ensure that members have the time and space to meet, rather than rely on staff at all times.


  • The population has grown-a lot. The House has not kept up. The constitution mandates a state can have no more than one member of the House for each 30,000 residents. In the initial apportionment of the House, Pennsylvania received one for each 55,000 residents. Today each member represents about 700,000 residents. With a district sized to 1790 standards, a candidate could canvass the entire population in one Friedman Unit, meaning that every member would theoretically be vulnerable to a low-cost challenger. In addition, the effectiveness of TV advertising would drop to zero in most urban areas. Though, a figure that low would have other problems. California alone would have 650 members; Wyoming would have 9; the House as a whole would have 5454 members, which is clearly unworkable. In general, European countries have around one member per 100,000 residents; Japan, one per 265,000 residents; Russia, one per 320,000 residents. We ought to think about whether it's possible to have a much larger House with smaller congressional districts, with the hope that members will be more responsive to a smaller population and unable to win elections merely by blanketing the airwaves.




The problem is, of course, that the forces mitigating against any of these sorts of changes seem fairly well entrenched. So I'm not sure what good it does to talk about.

It is, however, a very good argument for federalism--devolving power down to the level of the states wherever possible. That makes legislators much more directly responsive to their constituents. Unfortunately, few people seem to really like that idea, since it means that a lot of the time, legislators in places other than the one in which you live will respond to the demands of their constituents in ways of which you disapprove.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/demographic-shift/2025/