Federal Reforms Are Badly Needed

By: Lou Gale

Our federal constitution dates back to the 18th Century.  By comparison, the Illinois Constitution dates all the way back to 1977, when I was just three years old.  That fact alone indicates our nation needs a constitutional refresher. 

Congressman Sean Casten recently released a package of government reforms called a Common Sense Vision for American Democracy to improve our system.  He proposed increasing the size of the House, adding 12 at-large senators to the U.S. Senate, and reforming the jurisdiction and makeup of our federal courts.  As a champion of reform myself, I applaud these efforts. I also think we can, and must, do more.  So I’ll dive in, taking the three ideas in turn and humbly offer my suggestions.

First, the Congressman proposes adding approximately 138 additional members of the House, which would bring the number to 573.  The current number of 435 was arbitrarily set almost 100 years ago in 1929.  We’ve almost gone through 100 years of population growth without adding a single member. The proposal is quite simple:  the number of seats is the total US population divided by the population of the smallest state.  Based on the 2020 census, with Wyoming our smallest state, we’d have 138 fresh new members.  This would expand the Electoral College as well, but more on that below.  

An infusion of new members could break the logjam of our clogged system and better align the House with the will of the people.  I think it’s worth considering even a better alignment of population to representatives via the cubed root concept, which would set the House at about 691.  While I could settle for an even 600, the beauty of the Congressman’s proposal is its simplicity and will keep our current structure of at least one representative from each state.  

As to the Senate, there’s much more work to be done here.  When legislation can “fail” by a vote of 54 to 46 (as was the case for a vote for background checks on gun sales after Sandy Hook), and a minority of 46 senators represents only 37 percent of the nation, it’s hard to see how this is working.  We’re requiring a supermajority to do anything. 

The Congressman proposes 12 at-large senators to be elected through a nationwide system of ranked choice voting.  First, he had me at ranked choice voting, something I support in all elections nationwide.  Second, I like these senators who will have a nation-wide constituency as they will provide a further measure of the nation’s sentiments.  However I think this is too modest.  Two senators per state is outdated and now advantages small states at levels far exceeding the deal struck in the 18th Century at our founding.  Each state should have one senator, the number expanded to 125, with the remaining 75 senators distributed proportionally based on population.  Even with this change the smallest of states will still have up to 4 times for voting power in the Senate, at one of 138 versus the population power of roughly one of 550 currently held by Wyoming. 

While both the Senate and House reforms will increase the numbers in the Electoral College, I think that entire concept needs to be eliminated.  The concept doesn’t work as evidenced by the fact that two of the past four presidents won election while clearly losing the popular vote.  Five Presidents in all have been elected after losing the popular vote, with the first three serving just one term and the fifth being twice impeached.  Not an impressive track record.  Furthermore, currently the smallest state by population is Wyoming.  It has a population of about 580,000 people.  Wyoming has 3 Electoral Votes (2 Senators and 1 Representative).  Our current largest state is California with roughly 39,500,000 people and 54 electoral votes (52 representatives and 2 Senators).  The result is that Wyoming has about 193,000 people per electoral vote.  On the other hand, California has about 719,000 people per electoral vote.  So it takes roughly 3.7 Californians to equal the Presidential voting power of a resident of Wyoming.  Or think of it this way: a Californian is worth less than 3/10ths of one person from Wyoming when it comes to picking a President.  Unfair no matter how you slice it.

Furthermore, from a historical perspective we’re worse now than where we started.  In 1800 Virginia, then the most populous state, had 21 electoral votes and a population of roughly 807,000.  That results in about 38,400 people per electoral vote.  At that same time Delaware was the smallest state population wise, having the bare minimum of 3 electoral votes and a population of about 64,000.  The result is over 21,000 people per electoral vote in Delaware.  When compared, it took only 1.8 Virginians to equal the voting power of one person from Delaware in 1800.  In effect, the Electoral College is twice as unfair as at the time of our nation’s founding.  

Finally, the Federal Judiciary.  The Congressman wants to change the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and create a 13-judge multi-circuit panel to hear cases where the United States or a federal agency is a party.  I think the former idea of a jurisdiction change has merit.  The notion of a 13-judge panel could be adjusted as follows:  Don’t sweat the jurisdictional angle and just make that the Supreme Court.  The number of justices has not been updated since the 19th Century.  A move to 13 is long overdue.  Second, for simplicity, the random selection is left out and in its place we have term limits for the justices.  The concept of a lifetime appointment to remove judges from politics and faction perhaps made sense in 1790 but now the gamesmanship is to name as many young and vibrant jurists as possible and allow them to sit on the court indefinitely.  A 12-year-term and a limit of two terms should do the trick.  

I hope my supplements can be enacted.  If they are, perhaps we could call this new proposal, with my modest, humble supplements, Congressman Casten’s Common Sense Vision for American Democracy – with supplements by Lou Gale.

Lou Gale is an attorney, community activist, and village trustee for the Village of La Grange. In 2022, he ran in the Democratic Primary for Cook County Commissioner (17th District). He resides in La Grange, IL.

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