Fixing Big Government

With the unfolding scandals dominating the news from Washington, what has emerged is a struggle over the size of government. As is usually the case when a scandal has political implications, one can easily predict which politicians are arguing which side. Liberals, with a few notable exceptions, have unsurprisingly been defending the actions of the government, while Republicans have been sharply critical. What is amazing, however, is that in making the case that there should be no personal liability on the part of any government officials, liberals have been more effective at making the case for smaller government than Republicans have been.

As expected with almost any scandal, politicians have been swift to personalize it. Some Republicans, eager to get any traction in their dealings with the president, jumped at an opportunity to blast him on an issue that has across-the-board support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal titled “The IRS Scandal and Obama’s Culture of Intimidation.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in an interview on the Fox Business Network, was quick to point out that “[i]t’s President Obama’s IRS and we’re continuing to try and get to the bottom of the situation here.”

The President, for his part, has taken to defending himself by denying any knowledge of the IRS scandal, claiming he found out from the news. This line of defense left him open to much ridicule, with one political comedian pointing out that the “I found out from the news” defense has been employed by Obama many times before. At this point, he quipped, “I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama learned Osama bin Laden had been killed when he saw himself announce it on [the media].”

Following the President’s lead, other prominent liberal voices echoed this defense of “presidential unawareness.” Former senior advisor David Axelrod said of his former boss: “Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined in, asserting that “[t]he president doesn’t know about everything that is going on in every agency in government.” This justification was used by the other, more minor, players in this ongoing saga to rationalize what they claim was only inaction. Former IRS Chiefs Douglas Shulman and Steven Miller both claimed they were “unaware” of the agency’s targeting conservative groups, and Attorney General Eric Holder said some variation of “I don’t know” an astonishing 57 times over the course of a four-hour Justice Department oversight hearing on Capitol Hill.

While claiming ignorance and a right to be unaware inculcates the players involved from culpability, it affirms the argument small-government conservatives have been making for years. Simply put, if government officials (including the President) can’t be held accountable for what is going on beneath them, obviously the government has grown to be too large. The desire to shrink government from the behemoth it is currently is admirable, for sure. But while it definitely has the ability to be cut down to a more manageable size, it must be recognized that as a country with over 300 million inhabitants, it will still remain rather large.

One of the hallmarks of American democracy is that it is, supposedly, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Some historians have pointed out that famous description of government is a variation of phrasing in a speech delivered in the Senate by Senator Daniel Webster. Webster described the federal government as: “made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” Simply put, the power and “rights” of the government and its officials come from the ordinary citizen, and are in a large part derived from their ability to be held accountable. For the most part, however, these defining characteristics of the U.S. government are no longer.

In reality, the way government officials are supposed to be held accountable is through the oversight of Congress. This is the reason behind the existence of various oversight committees in the House and Senate, which ostensibly oversee the various departments of government. But these only work if the congressmen themselves realize that they are only there as representatives of the average citizen, and not because they somehow are themselves an authority. But this hardly seems to be true, either.

So how, then, to restore accountability in government? The answer is actually quite simple. Make the government bigger.

While that statement may seem oxymoronic and completely inconsistent with the small-government argument being presented here, it really isn’t. While government continues to grow to keep up with the growing population, there is one section that doesn’t grow at all. That section is the one that actually represents the people.

In 1789, the first U.S. Congress had 65 members in the House. The population was somewhere between 3 and 4 million, a ratio of one House member to every almost 60,000 Americans. The House continued to grow over the years, but the proportional representation shrunk. In 1850, for example, with 23 million Americans being represented by 233 members, it worked out to about one representative to every 98,000 Americans. The House stopped growing after the Apportionment Act of 1911, where the size was capped at 435 members. At that point, there was a representative ratio of 1:211,000 Americans, but with that totally arbitrary cap in place, the ratio has exploded, to 1:700,000 in 2010.

Were the ratio still the same as it was at the time of this nation’s founding, there would be over 5,000 members of the House of Representatives. A House of that size would be more representative of the people, would be more interested in accomplishing what is better for the people (rather than parties or special interests), and thus would be better able to hold the rest of government accountable to the people which it represents.