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Evolving History of the House and Senate

By Bruce Bartlett

When the Founding Fathers designed our system of government, one of their key ideas was that some of its components should be more accountable to public opinion and others less. At one extreme, Supreme Court justices were given life tenure. At the other, members of the House of Representatives have to run for re-election every two years.

In between, presidents are elected every four years by the Electoral College. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures for six-year terms -- only later did they become popularly elected.

Thus, we see that the Founding Fathers wanted only members of the House of Representatives to be elected through direct democracy. All other federal officials were elected or appointed only by indirect means. As one moves up the ladder of influence, democracy -- that is to say, public opinion -- was intended to play less and less of a role in decisionmaking.

The Founding Fathers did this very deliberately because they were fearful that the passions of the moment might lead to unwise decisions. They wanted some elected officials to be insulated to some degree from these passions, so that they could be more dispassionate in their judgments.

They also wanted the different branches of government to have different incentives from representing different elements of the electorate. The president represents the nation as a whole, in contrast to the parochialism of Congress, and was given the veto so as to discipline Congress when necessary.

Senators were originally expected to represent the states as states -- almost in the sense of being ambassadors to Washington from the states, which had far more sovereignty at the time of the Constitutional Convention than they have now.

Unfortunately, this sensible system was thrown out of whack by two fateful decisions, both made in 1913. The first was to change the method by which senators are elected, eliminating the role of the legislatures and electing them directly by the people. The inevitable result was to emasculate the states and eliminate much of their sovereignty.

The second decision was to permanently cap the number of House members. Previously, new congressional seats had been added from time to time to accommodate population growth and the entrance of new states into the union. According to the Clerk of the House, the number of House members grew from 65 in 1790 to 223 in 1850 and 386 in 1910. But ever since 1913, the number has been capped at 435.

This means that the number of people represented by each congressman has risen from about 60,000 in 1790 to 103,000 in 1850 to 238,000 in 1910 to 600,000 today. This vast increase in population per congressional district is responsible for many of the problems in our political system today.

Because House members can no longer know personally a large percentage of their voters, as was the case in 1790 when only property-owning white males could vote, they now must rely on mass communications like TV commercials, which cost a lot of money. This requires fund raising from lobbyists, and so on.

Thus, while these changes increased democracy in the Senate, they reduced democracy in the House. Both of these moves were expressly contrary to the wishes of the Founding Fathers, and both have implications for the elections in November.

The Founding Fathers expected the House of Representatives to more fully reflect the will of the people, changing often as public opinion changed. Remember, this was in the days before polling, when elections were the most accurate measure we had of public opinion. The Senate was expected to change more slowly, and this was indeed the case. Party control of the House changed 18 times in the nation's first 100 years, but only six times in the Senate.

As a result of the rise of population in House seats and gerrymandering, however, it is now harder for the House to turn over, while the impossibility of gerrymandering the Senate has made it easier for that house to turn over.

In 1980, the Democrats lost control of the Senate and it went Republican, with Democrats retaking control in 1986. Republicans retook control in 1995, with Democrats regaining it on Jan. 3, 2001, until Jan. 20, 2001. Thereafter, Republicans were in control until June 6, 2001. Democrats again retook control until Jan. 7, 2003, and Republicans have been in control continuously thereafter.

Meanwhile, since 1955, House control has switched only once -- from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1995.

This suggests that the Senate has become the more democratic of the two houses of Congress, more closely reflecting changes in public opinion. If that is the case, changes in the Senate this November may be more reflective of what people really think about the two parties, the state of the nation and President Bush.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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