US House size increase: Inherently valuable?

We have frequently discussed here the question of the size of the US House. As regular readers will know, the House is undersized, relative to the cube root law, under which an assembly is expected to be approximately the cube root of the population. The law is both theoretical (grounded in a logical model) and quite strong empirically (see the graph posted years ago). However, the US House is far smaller than the cube root predicts, which would be somewhere north of 600. In fact, the House has been fixed at 435 for more than a century,1 even as the population has grown greatly.

So there is a good political science case to be made for expanding House size. My question here is whether expanding the House is something that reformers should pursue for its own sake. Or is it of subordinate value?

I ask because many advocates of a move to proportional representation (PR) will tend to believe that PR would work better in a larger House. The larger the House, the fewer states there are with only one Representative, wherein obviously a plurality or majority system remains the only option.

Strategically, however, it could be a mistake for the PR movement to hitch its wagon to the House expansion movement. If PR is attached to the idea of “more politicians” it is probably in a lot of trouble. Advocates for democracy reform might prefer both a larger House and PR, but wouldn’t most of us prefer PR to a larger House, if we can have only one or the other? (Perhaps I will engage in blasphemy, but I might trade off a somewhat smaller House if it were necessary to get PR. In other words, I value PR ahead of almost any reform I can imagine.)

Another way to look at this is, would the reformist “capital” spent on getting a larger House be worth it if we ended up with 650 single-seat districts instead of 435? I have my doubts.

While a larger House should result in more parties represented, independent of the electoral system, I am not sure I believe that we would see it under otherwise existing US political and institutional conditions. As I’ve noted many times, the Seat Product Model says that the US “should” have a party system with more than two parties, and the largest one averaging around 47% of the seats, instead of our actual average which is obviously greater than 50%. It should have an effective number of seat-winning parties of about 2.75, even with 435 seats. With 650, the expectation rises to 2.94 (and a largest averaging just under 45% of the seats). In the real USA where there are really only two parties, and we keep single-seat districts, do we have any reason to believe just adding about 200 seats (let alone a more realistic 100 or so) would result in any increase in representation of other parties? I doubt it.

So, why bother? Is the value of a smaller number of people per Representative so strong that we want it regardless of how the party system pans out? I worry it actually could have a deleterious effect. Other things equal, more seats means more homogenous districts. Some of those could be minority districts that can’t now be drawn (given other criteria in district line-drawing) and, of course, those minorities in theory could be minority-party supporters as well as nonpartisan minorities (racial and ethnic, etc.). The latter is valuable, of course. But a concern is that in an existing and likely persistent two-party system that you simply end up with more safe seats (Brian Frederick notes this possibility in his book on US House size, even as he argues in favor of an increased size). We have plenty of safe seats already! If we had multiparty politics to start with, I think a larger House would help smaller parties win more seats, and possibly render districts on average more competitive. But in a two-party system, I think it makes districts on average less competitive. (I am not sure about this, so discuss away in the comments!) As for racial and ethnic minorities, I am skeptical that we get enough of a boost from a larger number of single-seat districts to make the tradeoffs in less competitive elections worth it. They’d be better represented by PR anyway, obviously.

Bottom line: With so many reformist needs in US democracy, I don’t think House size is worth pursuing, unless it can be in a package that gets us PR. It certainly should not be allowed to be the poison pill that prevents getting PR, as I fear it could be, were we ever otherwise in a place where PR was a live option.

____

  1. Except for temporary increases to accommodate Alaska and Hawaii; at the next census and reapportionment, it reverted to 435.

78 thoughts on “US House size increase: Inherently valuable?

    • Is that really the problem with the electoral college, though? It’s certainly true that there is malapportionment, but as I understand it the more serious problem is the importance of an “efficient” vote distribution and the arbitrary weighting of the importance of individual votes based on the marginality of individual states.

  1. Clearly, it depends on one’s goal, as well as the urgency of said goal. I am all for more accurate representation. But if the goal is to stop things from getting worse, PR at 435 seems just fine.

  2. Can at large districts be drawn across states or does that require a constitutional amendment? Mexico does that for 200 seats divided into 80 members into 5 districts, but then it is a one vote Mixed Member Majoritarian. Is Mexico the only Federation that has districts that cross state lines? When does a Federation become a unitary state?

    • In a few some federations, there is no constitutional bar to districts at either lower or higher level that cross state/ provincial lines (Austria, and maybe? Belgium) or are even nationwide (Germany); but in most cases, the fact that the typical federal constitution goes to great lengths to prescribe how seats are to be allocated among provinces/ States, often with caveats such as minimum numbers (Australia, Switzerland, USA), maximum numbers (Brazil, formerly the German Reichsrat) and/or grandfathering (Canada), would be seen as inconsistent with sharing seats across provincial/ State lines.
      I suppose a clever drafter could write in a rule that (eg) any State/ Province below 4.9 times the average population quota forms one district with five seats (or one zone/ region with five single-seat districts, like Tasmania); that any State/ Province over 49.9 times the average population quota forms one district with fifty seats (or one zone/ region with 50 single-seat districts); and that all other States go into the pot provided only that apportionment follows population. But nothing like that so far exists. It would certainly make drawing PR-STV districts much easier. (Both single-seaters and List-PR have it easier in this respect: 1 is divisible into any number of seats, and at the other extreme, a difference between one State forming a 13-seat district and the next State forming a 19-seat district is less problematic for party proportionality than one district electing 3 members and the adjoining district electing 9).

      • I think it is safe to assume that districts for compensation (or any other purpose) that cross state lines are a non-starter in the US, politically if not constitutionally.

      • I have sometimes thought that one could devise a provision permitting states to form compacts with other contiguous states for such districts. But I don’t think one could force it on them.

      • It is probably non-trivial that cross-state districts happen in divergent, not convergent, federations.

      • Does one mean “one centralised state devolving power” (India, Spain, South Africa, UK since 1922) while the other means “separate states voluntarily coming together” (Switzerland, US, Germany)? Just a guess.

      • I was looking for more felicitous terms than coming together federation and holding together federation.

      • It’s a useful distinction and one that, IIRC, Daniel Elazar (the late guru of comparative federalism) thought was very salient. Cf Sir Ivor Crewe’s quip that constitutions are marriage certificates for federations and baptism certificates for newly independent colonies. (I usually try to translate older phrases into more inclusive language, but “circumcision certificates” doesn’t quite do justice…) Elazar objected to indiscriminate use of the term “decentralised” since he thought it implied that a polity had previously been centralised, then made less so (by some gracious fiat of the central authority) and could be made so against if the sovereign revokes the edict of Nantes; he preferred the term “non-centralised” which lacked the overtones of movement but simply described the resting position.
        Also explains why the UK (Kilbrandon Commission et al) were very insistent that “devolution” was fine even though “federalism” was off the agenda; why Spain and South Africa resolutely insist that they are not “federations”, even though both have equal sub-unit representation in their upper houses, something that the “Federal” Republic of Germany does not.

      • The hell no to federalism school in the UK and South Africa reminds me of the Bundesrat is not a legislative chamber school in Germany.

      • Yes, it is very odd to hear German constitutional scholars insisting that the Federal Republic’s only national “Parliament” is the Bundestag, and that the Bundesrat is not a “chamber of the legislature” but just a festschrift of State Ministers who happen to enjoy a veto over certain classes of federal statutes.
        (That said, I come from a country that has consumed much ink debating whether the Queen or the Governor-General is the “head of state”, so not to point the finger at the Germans…)
        There may have been some point to this 150-200 years ago when the grammatical roots of “federalism” in Latin “foedus” (treaty or contract) were thought by some to reserve an implied right to secede from the union, but by now it is settled by history that use of the term “federal” by long-settled usage (USA, 1865) or even in the constitutional preamble (Western Australia, 1932) is not sufficient to confer a right to secede; nor is the use of the term “federalism” necessary to confer such a right (Scotland, 2014).

  3. I agree with your assessment. More broadly, I would say this: American reformers should focus their efforts on state legislatures first, especially ones which 1) already use multi-seat districts (e.g. New Jersey, Arizona, Washington) and/or 2)have high assembly sizes (e.g Vermont and New Hampshire). In most states, PR could fairly easily avoid association with having more politicians by combining PR with unicameralism

    • Yes, I often wonder why there is not more focus on the states that use multi-seat districts. (If there is such focus, I am not aware of it.)

      Also, I’ve favored the merging of the two houses of the California legislature (with PR) for about as long as I can remember!

  4. Let me play devil’s advocate. (I promise not to mention STV)

    The cube root of 331944660 is 692, slightly smaller than Germany, slightly larger than Italy and the UK.
    Would a house of representatives of 692 be more or less responsive to popular opinion or more or less likely to adopt STV or some inferior form of PR? (I was lying about not mentioning STV but you already knew that)
    A house of representatives of 692 would mean an electoral college of 795 members. Would that electoral college display the same level of Republican advantage as an electoral college of 538 members?

    • My (extremely rough) calculation of Electoral College results under this scenario, apportioning seats by the Hare method and awarding ME and NE votes to the highest vote-getter, for the 2016 election gives Donald Trump 449 votes to 346 for Hillary Clinton, or a 56.5-43.5 split compared to 56.9-43.1 under the actual results. The tipping point state would have gone from WI (Trump margin 0.77%) to PA (Trump margin 0.72%).

  5. And the Senate? Should the Senate be expanded too? Taagepera has a model for the size of a federal senate : the geometric mean of the number of states and the number of house seats. With 50 and 435, you’ll end up with around 150 senators.

      • And I’d be happy with 150, even if it just meant every state votes in every existing election. Of course, I’d rather use it as an occasion to get 3-seat PR in each state delegation. But just increasing to 3 per, even with staggered terms, is worth pushing for, in my view.

      • If that’s the ‘progressive’ constitution, I shudder to look at the conservative text. The central powers that have enabled Trump to run roughshod over constitutional norms are:

        the pardon power
        the lack of a legislative veto over secondary legislation
        the use of acting officers who would probably not pass the senate

        The pardon power and acting appointments do not change in the progressive text.

        There is some provision for a legislative veto, but it would have made absolutely no difference in the last 4 years because it only provides for a two house veto.

        The text uses an archaised language and ancient drafting techniques that belong in a theme park, not a contemporary constitution.

      • The conservative text is bad, though not as bad as it could have been I suppose. It repeats the old claim that Senators selected by state legislatures empower states, rather than turn state elections into proxies for federal elections. Then it gives each state one senator elected to a nine year non-renewable term. To me that would completely disconnect the senator from representing his state, or rather whatever electorate nine years ago gave him his seat.

        Representatives are apportioned only by citizen numbers and now serve three year term. 3/5ths of them are needed to impeach or increase the budget more than 1%. There is actually a surprising amount of requirements for 3/5ths votes. Conservatives are really allergic to majority rule it seems.

        Any law can be overturned by 30 governors. or by governors representing states with 3/5ths of the population.

        There is however a bicameral disallowance provision for secondary legislation. It would take both houses. but cannot be vetoed. So there is that.

      • The conservative text is actually a vast improvement over the existing constitution and the progressive text on emergencies. It would have war and emergency declarations approved by 3/5 vote of both houses, and require renewal every 6 months.

      • What a waste of an opportunity to remove that unseemly split infinitive from the oath…

        Alan, given the “Progressive” constitution’s Senate would be apportioned by population, presumably that does alter the nature of a two-house veto somewhat, since a GOP majority would have been rather less likely.

        About the provisions, except for the predictable parochialisms such as not even thinking of amending presidentialism and electoral system, one of my main issues is the minimally changed supreme court (18 year terms, two appointed by each president – a model which is endorsed by both versions). the term is still somewhat too long, and the appointment method completely unchanged. In the “Progressive” version, t’s easier to appoint a supreme court justice than the attorney general! (The latter provision, requiring a 2/3 majority to confirm an AG, is likely to result in no AG being appointed at all, with acting AGs (perhaps even more under the president’s thumb) becoming the norm – or the AG’s powers being transferred to someone else).

        Mark Roth makes good points about the “conservative” constitution’s redesign of the Senate. The critique that election by state legislatures makes state elections proxies for federal elections is a real danger. Of course, as he suggests, it applies even more to any proposal which is more serious about state control of senators, such as any proposal for a Bundesrat-style Senate.

      • I agree with Alan’s assessment of the “Conservative” draft – it’s a big improvement over the present. Partly for the reason he mentions, but I would also like to draw attention to their replacement for the electoral college: nominations by state legislators.

        The two candidates with most votes in each state legislative chamber receive the state’s ‘nominations’, and the two candidates receiving most nominations nationwide (with possible addition of candidates via petition by 1% of voters + majority of state legislatures) are the candidates in a popular vote general election. If there are more than two candidates, the election is by RCV. For comparison, this is not too different from France’s requirement of nominations from 500(?) elected officials – I wonder if anyone knows of a closer comparison.

        Abolishing the electoral college AND presidential primaries in one fell swoop? Sign me up!

      • Jd

        The progressive draft also gives the president an absolute veto on legislation that prides for congressional review.

        Provided that the Congress may, by a law passed by both Houses and signed by the President, authorize actions by the President that it may veto by the concurrent vote of both Houses of Congress.

        And, at risk of sounding like a drafting tragic, expressing such a substantive provision as a proviso is just so 1787.

  6. Surprising that there is no suggestion of having a Prime Minister in these drafts. If the electoral college is abolished, then a joint sitting of the House and Senate shall elect and dismiss the Prime Minister from among it’s members.

    Taking from Alaska’s Constitution in that a joint sitting of both chambers overrides the Governors Veto could be applied here.

    • I am in favor of making veto overrides easier. I am also in favor of a prime minister. Though not one that the Senate in its current form can withdraw confidence from.

      But these documents are written by Americans for an American office. A prime minister is about as likely as a monarch being added.

      • I’d add that while electing the prime minister by joint session is not completely unknown, it is certainly an extremely unusual way of electing a prime minister.

      • electing the president by joint session?
        This is a common rabbit hole I find when wanting to revise a Constitution. One starts by fixing the obvious howlers (“but when the president OR THE VICE-PRESIDENT HERSELF is on trial upon impeachment, the Chief Justice shall preside…), then move on to other low-hanging fruit (“‘during the recess of the Senate’ means…”) and then making quality improvements (only Senate-confirmed Cabinet officers qualifed to be President are in the line of succession – the Speaker or Senate President pro tem should have no incentive to remove a Vice-President or block the confirmation of a new one) and finally you end up prescribing PR for the House and cube root of population for the Senate and, blow it, may as well, let’s have a Prime Minister.
        Of course it is always possible that one’s principal may ratify the agent’s handiwork and choose to overlook any divergences from the original mandate, which is why Philadelphia 1787 began with “fix up the Articles of Confederation” but the States ended up unanimously ratifying “junk the Articles and adopt this Constitution instead”. So you need to know your audience. Even very conservative Federalist Society types might be persuaded of the value of “You do not want a jurisdictional turf-war between the Speaker and the Secretary of State over who is Acting President after ISIL takes out Air Force One and Two simultaneously”, but they would quickly hop off the train if it’s going past any further stations.

      • Far too conservative, Tom. Let’s add the kind of sumptuary rule that was common in Ancient Greek democracies, the Roman republic, and medieval city-republics.

        Members of families that belong to the highest percentile in terms of wealth are disqualified from electing or being elected to the House of representatives.

      • It is a joint sitting of both chambers like Romania, but unlike Italy requiring both chambers separately. It could be done by negative parliamentarianism.

        Another proposal is to abolish midterm elections for the House and to have it always elected concurrently with the Presidential 4 year term. Has anyone ever suggested this anywhere, or has there ever been proposed Constitutional Amendments for a 4 year House term? The Senate staggered election method could be left alone, but to improve upon by adding another Senator, so each state has 3 Senators.

  7. Rob, the proposal to abolish US midterm elections and have four-year House terms has been proposed by many people over the years. I do not think I have seen it recently, most likely because the proponents always tended to be relatively on the left side of the sale, and people on that side of things have rather liked the midterm elections of 2006 and 2018 (though not 2010 and 2014–it does go both ways!).

    I think there was even a constitutional amendment proposal to do this formally debated many years ago, but not passed.

    If you want to follow it up, look at some of James Sundquist’s works on constitutional reform from some decades ago.

    I’d favor this if–and only if–we changed to a PR system. Otherwise, no, I’ll take the occasional swing of the majority away from my preferred party (if I have to choose one of these) as a cost to pay for being able to have a chance at a midterm swing away from unified GOP control.

    Also, such proposals have to grapple with the Senate. Do you keep six-year staggered terms, thereby electing a third of the Senate, but none of the House, in each midterm? The proposals I remember from way back also had 8-year Senate terms (shudder!), with half elected at each presidential election.

    • NSW has 8 year terms for the legislative council, with half elected every 4 years and 4 year terms for the legislative assembly. The 8 year term was mildly controversial at the time but it passed a referendum very comfortably. The council is elected by STV with the whole state as a single district. The calculus for an upper house elected by FPTP is, of course, different.

    • MSS

      Since this thread seems to have become a just a tad more expansive than usual, can I ask your thoughts on changing the term to 6 years with no re-election?

  8. Overall, I feel like 4 years (in the absence of any branch/estate/department elected for any longer) is somewhat too short, but since so much is still on 2 years in the US, which is WAY too short, moving everything to 4 years would be so much better than currently.

    • If the House changes to a 4-year electoral cycle (ceteris paribus, or even with the House also moving to PR), I think we need to think carefully about what that means for the rump midterm elections of 1/3 of the Senate. I bet those elections would be even lower turnout than today. Even more so since the federal House shifting to 4-year terms will probably lead to at least some states moving to four year terms as well (at least some of which will coincide with the federal cycle). In that context, the potential for some years’ Senate elections to become low salience is much increased, with a corresponding increase in the systemic challenge for the parties which have a harder time mobilising supporters. So the two main options for reform are 4-year or 8-year Senate terms, with the whole chamber or 1/2 being elected at each House and President election. I don’t think 8 years is too long (I’d love to see a study on Chile, Brazil, NSW, SA or WA to convince me otherwise), especially when all other terms are 4 years, but it probably is long enough to make me indifferent between 8 and 4.

      There is, however, another relevant reform which I am strongly in favour: making it possible to have an early election (simultaneously for Congress and the President). It is a much-needed conflict resolution mechanism the US lack. Leaving aside the exact triggering mechanism and other terms aside for the moment (though I will admit they are also absolutely crucial), if Congress can dissolve early like this (again, with simultaneous early election for the president), there are schemes where I would certainly prefer (up to) 8 year terms for the Senate: e.g. President & House elected for simultaneous 4-year terms, with Senators elected for two House terms so their term is, at most, 8 years (but frequently less), and every federal election (including an early one) consists of President + House + 1/2 the Senate.

      • I agree about early elections. Perhaps a citizens assembly could approve an early election? Or a mutual suicide rule like Namibia?

        An 8/4 congress would not fit with a 6 year presidency, although a 6/3 congress would.

      • Like I said, for me, early Congressional elections would have to require a presidential election at the same time (so yes, ‘mutual suicide’ if you will). I’d say give the dissolution power to a House supermajority (if you require just a majority the system effectively becomes an elected PM, and we probably don’t want that given how badly it went in Israel). I wouldn’t give the president that power, though, unless he concedes power in some other area (e.g. a much weaker veto, and/or going semi-presidential).

      • The Swedish extra election method would be best to keep things from getting out of sync. A parliamentary democracy does not need early election provisions, look at Norway as an example. The only requirement for parliamentarianism is that the legislature has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister through votes of no confidence.

        Does Namibia requires the President when dissolving parliament that he or she faces an election at the same time? It would be interesting to see a country where a President can call snap elections for his or her office and a parliament does so separately. It seems as if legislatures don’t have fixed terms whereas Presidents do in most parliamentary and semi presidential countries?

      • Any revised US Constitution, whether drafted by the Federalist Society, the Brennan Center or the Niskanen Foundation, needs to repeal that 1787 provision which states “Whomsever shall hold in his hand the conch shell located on the podium of the House of Representatives, supreme executive power shall be vested in the same” because it’s creating a moral hazard for misbehaviour

      • JD makes some very good points.

        Since I was directly asked by Alan, I am opposed to lengthening the presidential term (and that view predates the DJT presidency).

        I am old enough to remember semi-serious proposals for six years, no reelection. I am not in favor of this, nor of six years with reelection. There is nothing magical about any given term length, but four feels “about right” to me.

        The question of mechanisms to have early elections was also discussed (never in a formally debated proposal that I am aware of) in the 1970s and 1980s. Look up Lloyd Cutler’s paper in, I think, Foreign Affairs. Also there is a book by James Sundquist that discusses similar options. However, I think these called for the president to be able to initiate early elections for House (maybe also Senate, but quite possibly not) as well as the presidency, but not for the Congress to be able to initiate the process.

        Regarding 8-year senate terms, it just seems “obviously” too long to me. I doubt there’s any research on actual 8-year terms in place elsewhere. I am not even sure how one would analyze their impact, although it would be interesting if we could think of a tractable research design and question. But given we currently have six, I am going to put the burden of proof on those who might advocate for a lengthening. The case for shortening seems easier to make. If we did away with House elections at the midterm, then it really boils down to whether staggered terms are so much more desirable than electing all members of congress concurrently with the president as to “require” increasing Senate terms to eight years. (I agree that electing 1/3 of the Senate and no other federal office at the midterm is a bad idea.) That advantages of maintaining staggering is an argument worth entertaining, but I am pretty set in my ways when it comes to thinking staggered terms are dumb, so I would not be likely to be convinced.

      • I would be more than happy to extend to the House to a four year term if they or the White House could force an early election, to a new full term, under certain conditions. I could live with 8 year Senate terms in that case. To be honest, I would be much more comfortable with a joint three year maximum term for the President and the House. With Senators serving for two presidential terms.

        An executive president serving for six years just seems like a bad idea. Especially if he is immediately a lame duck. The Senate races over the last few years, especially Trump’s claim of “winning” the Senate in 2018 and McConnell’s subsequent claim of having a mandate for his now departing Senate majority, have convinced me beyond any reasonable doubt that staggered elections will not work. Partial renewal where everyone gets a vote could work. Only letting some people vote does not.

      • It’s well worth noting the reasoning the “conservative” draft gives for relatively long presidential (and Senate) terms with no re-election:
        “This will make it less likely that the President will make important decisions with a view to reelection rather than to the common good”
        If you are a political scientist, you will find this statement fairly strange. The re-election incentive is the main incentive we know of to get politicians to work FOR the common good. Prohibiting re-election is likely to make the president or other politicians make decisions catering to an even narrower interests, especially their own.

        The “conservative” drafters also not that 6 years without reelection was the original plan of the 1787 convention. This is true – when the draft said the president would be elected by Congress. The framers were concerned about executives too beholden to the legislature, like those in many states at the time, which were usually elected annually. Once this was amended to take the choice of the president out of the hands of Congress, the draft was quickly changed to renewable 4 year terms.

        Matthew, I think staggered terms, while perhaps having benefits of their own (e.g. ‘varying’ the electorate through timing, ensuring continuity and institutional memory), are today mostly proposed and used as a way of allowing some gradual change when an assembly has a relatively long term. Having a third replaced every second year is probably more palatable than having just one election for a whole chamber every six years. Especially when other branches of govt are being replaced more quickly, it’s more likely to cause friction or deadlock. Especially if there are no early elections, you could be stuck with an assembly elected in an unusual and temporary burst of public opinion (this is actually kind of the case with the Netherlands now, and that’s just with a 4-year term – having staggered elections would probably have prevented this). So I think the main question remains about the merits of long terms, not staggering.

        Having some more about it, I think 1/3 Senate elections at the midterm may not be that bad after all. Most states elect their governors, other execs, and at least part of the legislature at the same time. Maybe (maybe!) it will give some more ‘state politics’ flavour to some Senate elections.

        Assuming a 4/6/4 scheme, if we change to having each state elect 3 Senators by PR, which obviously all need to be up at the same time, a staggered 6-year scheme would have 17 or 16 (hopefully soon 17 or 18) states up at each 1/3 Senate election. This means that each state will only see a midterm Senate election once every 12 years. Not so bad. If you make it possible to have an early House + President election, you could make Senate-only midterms even rarer; for example, if an early election is called within three months before the midterm, it should probably take place at the midterm. You might also wish to prevent a president & Congress elected early from serving a whole term in order to deter overly opportunistic early elections – and one of doing this would be to say that a House and President elected in a snap election serve until the 2nd Senate election after the early election – making 1/3 Senate only midterms even rarer.

      • I think the rationale for a 6 year term flows logically from the idea of no re-election. A single 4 year term with no re-election would be too short to get anything done.

        The advantage of no re-election is that it reduces the temptations and opportunities to drive a truck through the constitutional norms to get re-elected and, as Deng Xiaoping argued in the 1980s, would prevent the emergence of another figure like Mao. (Deng was gracious enough not to say who he thought the previous autocrat had been)

        You might answer that an aspiring authoritarian leader might merely use puppets to maintain control, but that did not work out so well for Plutarco Elías Calles when he attempted to govern through a succession of puppets in Mexico in the late 20s and early 30s of last century. Calles was an authoritarian leader with control of the state and party. That did not stop Lázaro Cárdenas del Río breaking Calles’ hold in a matter of months and no Mexican president ever attempted the exercise again.

      • They might try puppets, or they might just try to change the term limits provision. Plenty of attempts at doing that over the past 20-30 years in Africa and Latin America, and many of them successful. I don’t know if it’s rarer when the term limit is ‘absolutely no reelection’, but it certainly didn’t stop Chavez, under the constitution he himself established.

  9. “Lloyd Cutler’s paper in, I think, Foreign Affairs”
    Gore Vidal in “The Second American Revolution”, c 1979. Admittedly Vidal was a historian and novelist rather than a political scientist, so his constitutional reform proposals included both (a) “the Supreme Court to be shorn of its power of judicial review” and (b) “confined to the task of enforcing the Bill of Rights – a novelty for the present Court” (Ooh, burn!). I think Vidal may have meant confining judicial review to individual-rights cases and excluding horizontal separation of powers among branches, and vertical division of powers among Union/ States – something like Jesse Choper’s proposal although doesn’t cite him.
    Re the superiority of parliamentary over presidential systems, as well as Linz I would cite “All Things to All Men” by Godfrey Hodgson and “Monarchy to Republic?” by George Winterton.

    • As a historian Vidal was a good novelist. Vidal and Whitlam had a famous lunch where one of the great bromances of the twentieth century was in full flower until Gough remarked on several historical errors in Julian. There was a cataclysmic argument within minutes.

      • Oh to have been a fly on that wall. Two mighty intellects and equally gigantic egos.[] Vidal was of course a seventh cousin once removed of the man who was elected 43rd US President.
        [
        When I first began typing on a smartphone, it would “correct” any attempt to type “Whitlam” into “Egotism”. I thought this was Rightist propaganda but then worked out it was simply the phone meeting an unfamiliar word and assuming I had typed several QWERTY-adjacent letters by mistake…]

  10. If it were up to me, and I know it never will be, the most urgent amendment to the US Constitution would be to the process of amendment. The Australian model of putting an amendment to the people after it has been passed by either house and requiring a majority of voters in the nation and a majority of voters in a majority of states is far more democratic and efficient.

    Once that had completed its torturous path through the necessary number of state legislatures, in about 2051, I’d move on to increasing the Senate to five senators per state, elected for eight-year terms by the single transferable vote, with those of half the states facing election every four years, increasing the House of Representatives to twice the size of the Senate and having it elected every four years. I’d probably get rid of the presidential veto or at least cut the vote to override it to an absolute majority of both houses. I’d also drastically cut the number of positions the Senate had to confirm. It seems absurd to me that the entire top levels of the public service have to move out when a new president moves in.

    But, as I said, it’s not up to me.

    • I’m with you on a double majority voting system to approve amendments. And with having more permanent civil servants,

      But I don’t like the idea of only half the states seeing a Senate election every four years. Especially in a Senate that is as powerful as the American Senate. Electing five senators by STV every four years from every state could work quite nicely.

      • Mark,

        I see your point, but I like the way extended Senate terms in Australia even out temporary enthusiasms, I think having fewer than five senators for a state chosen at each election is not proportional enough and having ten senators per state, 500 overall, would be too many. However, your system is still far superior to what the US has now, so, if that were on the table, I’d take it. By contrast, if we get a referendum for four-year fixed terms for the Australian House of Representatives, which I support, and four-year fixed terms for our Senate, I will vote no.

    • I’ll quote the report of the Trinidad and Tobago’s 1974 Constitution Commission (aka the ‘Wooding Commission’), as I think they put it quite well: “In our view, a referendum is not a particularly accurate method of determining the state of public opinion on issues of constitutional reform. Inevitably questions on a referendum must be framed so that a yes/no answer will become possible. But in so many cases where the issues are difficult such a clear-cut answer is seldom accurate. Often there is a desire to add a qualification which the form of the referendum does not allow. Further, under a system of party politics it is quite probable that many an answer given will not be an answer on the merits to the question asked, but will merely reflect loyalty to what is known to be the party’s view lest the defeat of the party on the issue submitted should result in consequences too undesirable to be permitted.”

      I would add, in the case of the United States, that removing ratification of amendments from state legislatures would remove the last vestige of a means states have to have a formal voice in federal policymaking. A federation which has already been trending towards centralisation over the past 80-90 years, where the federal government has no clear boundaries to its authority vis a vis the states (and policy proposal are rarely even questioned as ultra vires), and where politics is more nationalised than ever before, could probably use more, not less, of a balancing role for the states. This is nowhere more true with regards to the constitution. Unless the states got a major role in the judicial appointments process, I think the power to ratify amendments should remain with state legislatures.

      • That T&T quote is great, and should be widely circulated.

        I am all in favor of giving states a role in choosing the Supreme Court. I even wonder if this is an idea Republicans could get behind as part of a deal over other national-level reforms, particularly to the Senate. Probably not, because they really like the SCOTUS as it stands (or sits) right now. And they like the Senate, too, the Georgia results notwithstanding. But, in principle, there might be room for a deal on state input to court appointments. (This should be its own post, and in fact, I have been mulling for months writing something about how to federalize the highest court.)

      • A problem with states having a role in anything about federal powers, whether constitutional amendments, Supreme Court appointments, presidential electors, or choosing Senators lies in the states’ legislatures: that all are elected by majoritarian rules, and many with extreme gerrymandering.

        Any condition of involving “the states” more in federal policymaking or selection of officeholders should be conditional on, minimally, banning gerrymandering.

        And there goes my Grand Bargain!

      • jd,

        In the end any constitutional amendment is a yes/no proposition. Having it ratified by state legislatures rather than a public vote makes no difference. There is time for debate, discussion and refinement in the period before the amendment is put through Congress.

        Given the gerrymandering of electorates by states, it seems to be that state legislatures are not necessarily very representative. The Australian system gives the states a big say when you define state as the people of the state rather than the legislature of the state.

      • I share the view that state legislatures are not very representative of the states they control. Letting the people of the state decide is a better and purer way of determining a state’s position.The Legislature should be their creature anyway instead of an unrepresentative body that gerrymandered itself over them.

      • I agree. Trinidad and Tobago is a very small nation and the commission’s concerns about referendums may be valid for them. Securing a dual majority in the referendum on the Swiss/Australian model is a whole different kettle of fish.

        Moreover the powers of substates are not necessarily a good predictor of how they influence policy. Australian states are considerably weaker than US states, but the premiers were able to more or less force the federal government to abandon it’s early Bojo style response to the pandemic and adopt a serious plan that has been extremely successful. The US governors were not. Any number of yahboo only unitary polities are efficient people have suddenly rediscovered the virtues of federalism here.

      • There comments of the Wooding commission were general, and there is no reason to think that they were just talking about T&T. After all, they are based on observations from other countries, since T&T has never held a referendum. They apply very well indeed to many of the referenda that have been discussed on this very blog.

        I certainly agree that US state legislatures require significant reform, at a minimum, as Matthew said, a ban on gerrymandering. That’s beside my points about federalism, which hold even if the states all went even further and adopted PR. My points were intended to be relevant to virtually all federations. Unit governments systematically and institutionally have different interests and different views on federalism and specific policies to federal governments even though they have the same electors just as presidents and assemblies do, even though they may have the same electors. If a constitution has federalism as one of its principles, having the system set up in such a way that federal and unit governments have to negotiate to make some policies (and have institutional means to protect their respective autonomies) serves that end, just as empowering different branches of the same government serves the separation of powers; they are both ways of diffusing rather than concentrating power. Just as in the contest for power between different branches, voters will often support one side based on the popularity or some policy or leader, being unlikely to grasp the longer-term consequences of empowering one side at the expense of the other.

  11. I think we’ve received a lesson in Australia that states are extremely weak in normal practice only. When the states want to flex their muscle they have the full power of the constitution behind them. It’s only surprising because it so rarely happens. It will be very interesting to see how the premiers use their new found profiles and the balls to tell the federal government to shove it over the coming electoral cycles. There’s already an interesting dynamic in Australian politics where a surprisingly large percentage of the population votes for one side federally and the other on a state basis. Take Queensland that votes like Alabama on a federal level but like Massachusetts on a state level. Where might this lead to? Of course our High Court can almost be guaranteed to side with the Canberra on almost any question of importance. But it’s not impossible to imagine a situation where certain states take on welfare provisions for cash payments for rental assistance, sick pay etc (which they already have), and then this leads to states clawing back income taxing or corporate taxing powers. Of course it’d be a very brave premier that tried that, but it no longer seems impossible.

  12. So an elected upper house with equal representation of states doesn’t protect the in interests of all state equally or that small states are more equal than bigger states?

    What about an Upper House like India’s Rajya Sabha where the it is based on weighed representation and not equal, but it is staggered elected by the Single Transferable System by the states? Is that a good model or are there disadvantages to it?

    What about Canada? Canada doesn’t have a triple E Senate and it seems that the providences flex their muscle with the Federal government.

    • In my mind a directly-elected chamber with equal representation for all units of a federation simply adds malapportionment to representation in the federal assembly. It is not likely to contribute anything to federalism per se except insofar federal stability is threatened by a tension between large states and small states.

      • Yes, I strongly agree with JD’s response to Rob. Federalism should never be understood as a reason to enshrine malapportionment in national policy-making. It should be understood as a way to enshrine the sovereignty of states (provinces, etc.) to make their own decisions, over matters the federal bargain has left to them, without interference from the national level (and vice versa).

        I am not yet sure where I come down on the debate occurring above over whether enshrining state sovereignty is best served by providing a role for state governments/legislatures, or through concurrent-majority requirements in a referendum (assuming adequate procedural safeguards around the holding of a referendum; in other words, not the Brexit model). On these points, I am along for the ride, and thinking.

      • Well, for my part, I didn’t say never. Sometimes an imbalance in population can undermine the stability of a federation to the extent that malapportionment may be necessary to save it. Quite often, some malapportionment has been necessary to establish a federal union in the first place. Consequently, there can be a tradeoff between ‘no malapportionment’ and the formation or preservation of a given federation.

        Without the Connecticut compromise, it is doubtful the US Constitution would have succeeded in 1787-8, with a likely disintegration of the Union within just a few years; without the possibility of maintenance of malapportionment in the Council and at least some national vetoes (which are by necessity malapportioned), the EU would probably have remained a far more limited project. You’ll have to decide for yourself which aim is more important.

        But… insofar as malapportionment indeed does nothing for federalism in legislative representation, I can’t see what it would do for it in constitutional referenda.

  13. Pingback: Emergency electoral reform: OLPR for the US House | Fruits and Votes

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