Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Make America Great Again: Representation

I spent 20+ years in the IT industry; first as a software engineer, then as a project manager and director of larger teams. I am now involved with a couple startups—one that focuses on the environment and leading a healthy and sustainable life, and one that offers team and leadership training through online simulations. I also consult with a group doing organizational development and leadership coaching at a large university. I also have a blog. All of this clearly qualifies me to offer political commentary.

This is the first of a periodic series I am cleverly calling "Make America Great Again" hoping to draw in unsuspecting readers who think I am either for Trump, or against Trump and are looking for yet one more essay on his threat to the universe. I may comment on Trump's policies from time to time, like I have with Obama in the past, but that is not my primary goal. It is my assessment that we have a number of structural problems, some rooted in our Constitution, as amazing as it is, that if not addressed, will continue to lead to break downs in governance.

First up: Congressional Representation. Article I of the U.S. Constitution describes our loathsome congress and Article 1 Section 2, paragraph 3 includes this sentence:

The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand

At the outset we kept close-ish to that one to 30,000 ratio. In 1800 the U.S. population was about 5.3 million with 106 representatives in the 6th Congress. That's one per 50,000. But our country expanded in size and Congress couldn't keep up. The Apportionment Act of 1911 fixed the size of Congress at 435 members. There were 92 million Americans them, less than a third of our current population with one Rep for every 235,000 Americans. By 2010, our population grew to 308 million with the same 435 representatives. 

About one for every 709,000! 

Today your average member of Congress represents 14 times as many people as at our founding!

In my line of work with teams and leaders we hear about trust and fairness. Equitable treatment, who reports to whom after a re-org, who's ideas wins, pay equity, and so on. It's not just a workplace thing. It's a human thing. We expect to be treated fairly and require trust in relationships. With my representative having to look out for the welfare of 708,999 others, how am I to know I am being treated fairly within the system? With so much now separating me from my directly elected representative, how can I trust them? When I read in social media or in the news (fake or otherwise) I hear human needs for trust and fairness not being met. These are real problems.

Revisiting the representation proportion is an essential first step. Gerrymandering becomes obsolete as districts naturally become smaller and more compact. Money influence would be offset by the increase in districts. Local issues could be more fairly represented. Third parties would emerge across the political spectrum as the price for entry would go down. The will of the people would be more fairly expressed through Congressional Reps and reduce the gulf between the separating parties as moderate districts choose middle-of-the road candidates. Imagine a Congress with an actual Green Party or Tea Party, not Tea Partiers buried inside the Republican machine. All sorts of minority groups could have a voice from their smaller, compact districts. Different factions within the current party systems could emerge. Alliances would have to be brokered since a clear majority would be harder to achieve. 

"Now, John," you might be wondering, "are you suggesting we multiply Congress by 14? Fourteen?!? That's 6090 representatives! That'll never work!" 

U.S. Capitol. Size matters.
And how is 435 working for you? I say we try. With my former IT hat on I think of scaleability. Like IT systems that don't scale well for large numbers of users, Congress doesn't scale well. It's like running an MS Access database for your office on Windows 95. It's become unwieldy and brittle. It crashes too much, requiring reboots. We need a cloud solution for Congress!

Trump is out to drain swamps and upset apple carts. Frankly, his efforts will yield little, in my opinion. While he is enflaming passions, it is really at the policy level, not the structural level. And he couldn't change that anyway. Our long-term success as a nation, honestly, requires a different approach. And even with all Trump's bluster, it's still the same power dynamic revolving around a center of gravity of money. Look at his cabinet—billionaires all. The "little guy" is only getting more marginalized. 

Consider this: Modern technology could allow 6000 representatives to find new ways to collaborate. They couldn't all physically fit in the House Chamber so other meeting arrangements would be discovered. They could meet in virtual spaces and explore different ways of working together. Regional Representative offices could emerge for face-to-face debates before bringing an issue forward to the larger caucus. Committee work, voting schemes, House rules, power centers based on party and tenure would shift. Everything would be up for discussion on how the sausage machine works. 

Think about where you live and what the geographical boundary of 50,000 people would look like. Wouldn't that be an appealing group of similarly oriented individuals towards debating and selecting a representative? All politics would truly become local again.

There is an organization called thirty-thousand.org that has a lot more to say about this. Check them out.

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