Scope of government not size should be the marker
March 28, 2011

When "Less" is Not Less
by former Missouri Rep. Ed Emery

Any Reform Bill which is worth a moment's thought, or the smallest effort to carry it, must at least double, and it ought to do much more than double, the representation of the metropolitan boroughs and of all the great cities of the United Kingdom." --John Bright, British statesman

A recent Missouri Record article suggested that Missourians would be better off with a smaller legislature. To quote Ms Susan Montee: "A true reduction in the size of government should begin with a reduction of the number of politicians." I disagree and believe such a perspective demonstrates misunderstanding of political science and misappropriation of the cry for "smaller" government. The Tea Party Movement has fueled current interest in smaller government, but whether articulated well or not, the Tea Party movement is more about a return to constitutional government than it is about the size of the legislative bodies.

The cry for smaller government is not about head count but about restoring limits against invasive and ubiquitous government. It is likely that shrinking the size of the legislature would actually work against that goal and unlikely that predicted savings or efficiencies would materialize. A true reduction in the size of government should begin by extracting government from the issues of life that are not prescribed in our constitution and those for which the disposition and construction of government is ill-suited (abandon mercantilism).

An examination of 50 state legislatures reveals no standardization for either the size of the legislative body or the number of constituents served by each member. State houses vary in size from 120 members in California, each representing 462,000 people (Texas is a distant second at 181 and 165,000) to 400 members in New Hampshire, each representing only 3100 constituents. Missouri has the 4th largest house at 163 members and the 29th largest constituency at 37,000. In other words, there are 21 states with fewer constituents per elected representative.

I have found no one claiming to know an ideal ratio of house or senate members to constituents. There is no ideal size to target.

Anecdotally, New Hampshire with a 400 member house for a population less than 1/4th that of Missouri. According to the Free State Project, New Hampshire "has the lowest state and local tax burden in the U.S., the second-lowest level of dependency on federal spending in the U.S.,.the lowest crime levels in the U.S. a dynamic economy with plenty of jobs and investment, and a culture of individual responsibility," all things that are dear to most tax-paying Missourians.

The substance of the discussion, therefore, should be the political science of representative government, and the challenge is not so much limiting the size of government as limiting the scope of government. That is accomplished by reducing elitism and autonomy in elected officials and restoring a sense of accountability to the people. Such transformation demands officials be closer to their constituents, not more distant. Larger constituencies are a move toward more powerful and arrogant politicians and weaker constituents, exactly opposite the people's cry. It is a move toward oligarchy, not liberty, and government in America should be about protecting the people's liberty not empowering politicians.

Claims about cost savings are both over-stated and over-rated. The ideal size for the Missouri House is no more a function of the salary budget than is the ideal size for an army. Function must be the measure: is the army adequate to protect me from external enemies; is the legislature adequate to protect me from those domestic? The oath of the legislator is to protect me from government's unauthorized (i.e., unconstitutional) or unwise invasions into my liberty. It is to protect me from tyranny. History, on the other hand, may suggest that the smaller the ruling body the greater the threat of tyranny.

Small government is a frame of mind, not a physical size. The house is called "the people's house" for a reason; it is the elected body closest to the people. Fewer elected representatives means more unelected bureaucrats and more costly access to elected officials. If the headcount is a concern (and it should be), then it is bureaucracies that should be reduced before those who are elected by and accountable to the people's elections. It is nonsense to suggest that diminishing my share of a state representative will increase my influence in the legislature. Any nebulous cost saving will be quickly consumed by demands for more staff and government's passion to re-appropriate rather than refund tax dollars.

Discussion about the size of Missouri's legislative bodies is always appropriate; but there is far more to be gained in reducing the cost and influence of government by electing the right people to public office than by electing fewer of them. Reason must reign-in emotion when considering reforms, especially when we are dealing with the Constitution. The purpose of government is the preservation of liberty. Arbitrary and capricious reductions in the size of the Missouri House are more likely to encourage tyranny than protect liberty. Let's make sure government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." is more than a slogan but is in fact the function of Missouri state government.

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