Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Small states' outsized political power (Part I: History)

Observers have offered a dizzying array of explanations for Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, among them:
Each of these can boast of some combination of empirical support and intuitive resonance, but it is indisputable that the mechanics of the Electoral College amplified support for Mr. Trump and paved his path to the White House. In like measure, the swollen Republican majority in the House of Representatives results not just from deft tactics but also from the increasing heft of voters in less populous states. And the Senate is designed to preserve the equal power and relevancy of each state irrespective of population.

This piece is the first in a series that will examine the history, reality, and implications of one element of U.S. politics: the insulation of relatively depopulated (i.e., rural) jurisdictions from the electoral weight of urban majorities. Whether virtue or vice -- or some of each -- this is an enduring feature of national-level politics that complicates policymaking. This series will focus on economic issues, leaving space for others to address how these same phenomena shape “culture war” policies (such as abortion restrictions) with meaningful but nonetheless indirect economic effects.

History - Preserving the Power of States

The first iteration of the federal government, organized under the Articles of Confederation, protected states’ autonomy by requiring a supermajority to act and unanimous consent to amend its structure. In practice, this proved unworkable, and by 1787 a Constitutional Convention was underway to develop a new system. The resulting system is generally celebrated for elegantly balancing the competing interests of the diverse states, though among these compromises was the embrace of slavery at a moment when abolitionism was on the rise.

The Senate

The legislative branch (Congress) is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state has two senators, no matter its population. Today, this feature is uniquely resistant to change even by constitutional amendment.

The Senate reflected the concerns of small states that their power would be swamped by that of more populous states. At this time, the U.S. economy was mostly an agricultural one. Because the population was more uniformly rural than it is today, the design of the Senate addressed the heterogeneity of the states’ geographic expanse rather than the rural-urban divide that emerged decades later.

Though senators were originally chosen by state legislators, a 1913 amendment established direct election of senators.

The House of Representatives

Critics of the proposed House of Representatives assailed its small size (65 members at the outset) and lengthy term of office (two years, a tenure modern observers say is too short). In Federalist No. 55, James Madison answered these criticisms and argued that the country’s growth trajectory would yield a House of some 400 members by the mid-1800s.

While Madison conceded that a legislature composed of thousands of representatives would be unworkable, the Constitution capped the House at one member per 30,000 people. A half-century before the telegraph, it was likely hard to imagine the U.S. population increasing ten-fold, as would have yielded even 1,000 House members.

Thus, the Framers took for granted that the House would grow alongside the population. While the states failed to ratify a proposed amendment, even that formula would have ensured one House member for every 50,000 people. The constitutional design reflects, and projects, a mostly rural population idealized by the yeoman farmer.

Over time, the size of the House has increased. However, House growth has been slower, and population growth faster, than the Framers apparently predicted. This table combines Census data with the history of the size of the House:

Year U.S. Population Size of U.S. House
1790 3.9M 65
1810 7.2M 141
1850 23.2M 227
1890 62.9M 330
1920 105.7M 435
1960 179.3M 436
2010 308.7M 435
Aside from some slight fluctuation at midcentury, the size of the House is the same as it was 100 years ago even as the population has tripled.

Finally, each state is guaranteed at least one at-large House member, as is the case for seven states. Because of quirks of district apportionment (discussed in later posts), the most populous House district is more than 1.8 times more crowded than the least populous district.

The Electoral College

The Electoral College, the convoluted mechanism by which the president is chosen, merges the arithmetic of the Senate and House to apportion electoral strength to the states. 

Each state selects a number of electors equal to the state’s congressional delegation: its senators plus members of the House. (The District of Columbia also gets the minimum number of votes, currently three.) Since the makeup of both the Senate (by design) and the House (by inaction) convey outsized power to residents of low-population states, the Electoral College magnifies these effects.

The Electoral College stands apart as the most-revisited aspect of the Constitution, impacted by Amendments XII, XXII, and XXIII. Despite this consistent attention and revision, the system is not significantly altered from its original form. The appetite to reform the system when defects appeared, but not to fundamentally alter it, is viewed by some as evidence that its purpose was to protect slavery. In modern times, the Electoral College’s distortions accrue to the benefit of one political party, making reform unlikely aside from questions of inertia.


Wynter K Miller said...

I appreciate this "origins approach" to understanding our current political experience. When I was a political science student, I took a course called "American Congress" and one of the biggest things I took away from that class was the idea that our final congressional structure satisfied exactly no one. As you note, what we have today is the product of a number of not insignificant compromises. Broadly, the dominant parties of that time (i.e., the Federalists and Anti-Federalists) had competing visions for what a congress should be. Should Congress "enlarge and refine the public view," as suggested by the trustee model of representation favored by the Federalists? Or should Congress be an unrefined (without the negative associations suggested by that term) direct echo of public opinion, suggesting a mirror representation model as favored by the Anti-Federalists? Of course, the answer to these questions is determinative with respect to everything from term lengths, term limits, number of representatives, etc. — and of course, it appears we're still struggling to come up with the best answer to these questions today. I think it's also interesting to note what the Federalists and Anti-Federalists did not disagree about: Congress is the most dangerous branch.

Can't wait to read the rest of this series.

RGL said...

This is a really insightful approach to understanding the history of the electoral college, something that not many Americans truly understands, in order to understand our current government. The biggest confusion for many is why the electoral college still exists when our society's makeup is so different than it was in the late 1700s. The policy of creating the electoral college to elect our president was without a doubt a tool to make both big and large states 'happy,' but as noted by Wynter, probably no one was satisfied.

Interestingly, Trump boasted that his campaign's strategy was created based on the electoral college [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkHa2-c_8Pk], and the fact that he did not win the popular vote, i.e. did not have approval from the majority of the people of the United States does not seem to bother him.

This debate comes up every election season and not two Republican presidents in a row have won the presidency without winning the popular vote. I am curious to see if you share a prediction about ridding us of this antiquated system.