20 October 2013

Eliminating the US House of Representatives

The US Government was shut down because the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives does not like the Affordable Care Act that was passed and became law in 2010, and the President does not want to withdraw his signature legislative accomplishment. The shutdown and dysfunctional Government raises questions about whether the form of Government that was devised in the Constitutional Convention needs to be reviewed after 225 years, Times and conditions change, and reviewing decisions with the advantage of time and hindsight are generally useful

The original governing body of the country was guided by the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted by the States in 1781 and had one legislative body. There was no Senate and House of Representatives.

The Randolph Plan, proposed by Edmund Randolph in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, established the concept of a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. He argued that the House would be “of the people” and would represent public opinion. The Constitution with the two legislative bodies became part of the US Constitution that was ratified in 1789.

It did not take long for politicians to begin subverting the idea “of the people.” Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts drew odd shaped Congressional districts in 1812 to maximize his political party’s advantage in future elections. The concept of “gerrymandering” has been widely practiced by both parties since that time.

In the most recent election, Republicans received about 48% of the congressional vote across all states but won the majority of House seats largely because of gerrymandered districts. Generally, incumbents win about 95% of all Congressional elections in part due to gerrymandered and uncompetitive districts where one party is virtually guaranteed election. What is the difference between foreign dictators stuffing ballot boxes and stealing elections and US politicians rigging election outcomes through gerrymandering? Not much.

All of the public opinion polls suggest “the people” oppose the Government shutdown strategy of the House Republicans but the Government remained closed for almost 2 weeks. Clearly the House of Representatives has become “of the politicians” and not “of the people.”

What would the consequences be of eliminating the House of Representatives and all of the politicians employed by the House? I do not know all of the implications, but the budget implications would be enormous. Faced with outsized Federal budget deficits and House proposals to cut spending for food stamps, day care, and medical services, why not consider cutting the Congressional budget to zero?

Each elected representative receives about $174,000 per year and lots of expenses. The typical Congressional office has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, not counting salaries.

Our elected representatives have voted themselves very favorable retirement benefits, so even if the House were eliminated, the public would still be responsible for paying the politicians. Depending on how long he or she was in office (at least 5 years), a Congressman who loses a re-election or otherwise leaves the House can receive full retirement benefits beginning as early as age 50.

In addition to Congressional staffs, there are lots of free spending House committees. There are 20 standing committees, plus permanent committees, plus select or special committees. All of these committees have staff, hire consultants, and incur big expenses. Many add foreign junkets for Congressmen and women and their aides at taxpayer expense. US Government spending does seem “out of control” but it starts with Congress.

So how much could we save if we eliminated the unrepresentative House of Representatives? Billions. Unfortunately it would take the Congressional Budget Office to figure out exactly how much and they have been recently furloughed due to the Government shutdown.

If asked whether the Government should continue to fund Head Start or the House of Representatives, I think the children would win easily.

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