It’s August, and by law and custom, Congress is in recess for a month. Per usual, pundits have criticized the Members for vacating the capital with so much unfinished business left—a sign of Washington’s dysfunction, they say. However, those lamenting the break should cheer up. There’s a whole group of people across the country looking after the nation’s welfare: the state legislatures. The Congressional Institute works exclusively with the national legislature, but it’s worth taking a look at other levels of government to see what they can teach Federal officials. Senators and Representatives should take note while they are away, since their state-level counterparts, in some respects, have the potential to represent citizens better than Federal lawmakers.
In our political tradition, one of the hallmarks of a good legislator is that he be like the citizens he represents. As George Mason argued at the Constitutional Convention, “The requisites in actual representation are that the Representatives should sympathize with their constituents; should think as they think, and feel as they feel; and that for these purposes should even be residents among them.” (Incidentally, this is not an exact quotation from Mason, but from James Madison’s journal of the meeting.) With the large constituencies that Members of Congress must take into consideration, state legislatures are far more likely to approximate this ideal than the U.S. Congress does. State legislators do this by being closer to the people and by possessing personal qualities (like sex, race, or ideology) more similar to their constituents than the Members of Congress.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to state legislatures is that lawmakers can be more available to their constituents. Part of that is practical: They need not head off to Washington for the majority of the workweek; likewise, the smaller district sizes means neither the lawmaker nor the constituent needs to travel as far a distance to meet with each other. Granted, Members of the U.S. Congress have large staffs, with an average of 18 aides in the House and 40 in the Senate, so they are able to connect with those constituents through their agents. Also, the availability of state legislators probably varies widely. In some states, the legislature is a part-time operation and representatives have jobs on the side. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 10 states, the legislators spend 80 percent or more of their professional time on public affairs. In 23 others, they spend about two-thirds of their time on the same. In the last 17, lawmakers spend less than half their time working for the state. However, comparing the legislators solely on time spent on the job might be misleading, since the state officials will likely have a lighter workload and smaller constituency—not to mention the fact that the quantity of time spent working might not translate to quality time.
Perhaps more important than practical considerations, smaller constituencies mean a more favorable lawmaker-to-citizen ratio. The average Member of the House of Representatives serves more than 710,000 constituents. By contrast, the average state representative (those in the lower houses) represents approximately 57,000 constituents. The only amendment James Madison proposed as part of the Bill of Rights that did not eventually pass was one that would have limited the size of congressional districts, eventually placing a 50,000 constituent cap to each jurisdiction. Today, thirty-one states and the District of Columbia still have state house districts in their lower chambers that fit this requirement. (Granted, as a Federal amendment, it would not bind state houses but it is a useful tool to analyze the data.) Of the ten most populous states, two (Virginia and Michigan) do not break 100,000 constituents per representative. Seven (Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, New York, Florida, and Texas) do not exceed 175,000 constituents per lawmaker. California has the highest constituent-representative ratio, which is still only 465,000 to 1 (although the state senate districts actually exceed its congressional districts). At the other end of the spectrum, members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives serve around 3,300 citizens each. Each member of that body could add every constituent to their Facebook page and still have more than enough room to add their friends and family without reaching the 5,000-friend limit! The thought of such immediate access to constituents is every U.S. Representative’s dream! Federal officials can’t hold a candle to their state counterparts when it comes to accessibility to constituents.
State governments offer the opportunity for high-quality representation expanding the pool of participants in the political process. Many criticize Congress’ lack of diversity, but theoretically state houses offer the opportunity for great diversity. Considering that each state’s legislature is larger than its delegation to the U.S. Congress, women and minorities should have greater opportunities to participate in government.
With respect to minority representation, a superficial analysis of the numbers does not strongly support this hypothesis and might even contradict it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.6 percent of the American population is African-American, but their share of congressional seats is not proportionate. In January 2013, The Washington Post reported that only 42 U.S. Representatives and 1 U.S. Senator are African-American, which translates to 9.5 percent of the lower chamber and 1 percent of the upper chamber. Nationwide, about 8.1 percent of the state legislators are African-American.
Granted, this is a poorer showing than the national legislature, but when you go further into the numbers, a different picture comes into focus. It is important to consider the fact that various racial and ethnic groups are differently dispersed throughout the country, which means that certain groups are represented better in some states than in others. In some states in the South, for instance, African-Americans control a greater percentage of the state legislative seats than they do in Congress: According to Beth Reingold of Emory University, 20 to 23 percent of legislators in the South are African-American, which is much better than Congress. But if you break the numbers down even more, the numbers become ambiguous once again. In Mississippi, one of the four Representatives is black, and three of Georgia’s fourteen Representatives are. These are roughly the same or better than Reingold’s 20 to 23 percent figure.
Louisiana and Alabama are a different story. Only one of Alabama’s seven Representatives is black, and only one of Louisiana’s six Representatives is—this is a poorer showing than Reingold’s 20 to 23 percent statistic. Initial examination of the numbers does not suggest that political participation by black Americans is improved at the state level, but the question merits further examination.
Female representation at the state level more strongly proves the assertion that state legislatures offer the opportunity for historically disenfranchised groups to participate. Again, according to the Post, there are 81 women in the U.S. House and 20 in the Senate, which is 18.4 percent and 20 percent of those bodies, respectively. At the state level, women have a greater voice in the legislatures. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 24.2 percent of state lawmakers are women. In no case are the numbers of minorities and women in either level of government proportionate to their share of the general population, but their representation is somewhat better in the states.
Just as women and racial or ethnic minorities, have greater opportunity to participate, so do political minorities; some quick calculations show that both parties are more equitably represented at the state level. For instance, although Massachusetts has the reputation for being one of the most liberal states in the nation, even when its own Senator, John Kerry, ran for President, it gave 38 percent of the vote to Republican George W. Bush. Yet, there are currently no Republicans in the Massachusetts delegation to Congress. But there are over 30 in its state house, the General Court. For the reverse situation, consider Arkansas. None of the 4 U.S. House of Representatives Members from Arkansas is a Democrat, even though almost 39 percent of the population voted for President Barack Obama in the last election. However, 48 members of the state House of Representatives are Democrats and 1 is even a Green Party member. In the battleground state of Ohio, nearly 51 percent of the population voted for President Obama, but only 25 percent of its U.S. House delegation is Democratic (4 out of 16 Members). In the Ohio House, the Democrats control 40 percent of the seats (40 out of 99). This is not to say that this phenomenon plays itself out across the country, but a cursory analysis suggests that the state houses provide ample opportunity for participation by political minorities.
Of course, none of these statistics prove that the legislation these bodies produce is better than that of the U.S. Congress. That is a post for another time. But if a good legislator is one who is similar to and accessible to his or her constituents, the state legislators are for the most part far closer to the ideal than those at the national level.