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A Bipartisan Argument For Increasing the Size of Congress

2012 October 24
by Eric Horowitz

The idea that we should increase the size of Congres is not new. There’s often speculation it could help representatives stay in touch with constituents, create more diversity in government, and inch the country closer to the citizens-to-representatives ratio our founders intended.

An intriguing new paper by Nels Christiansen in the Journal of Public Economics offers another reason for making Congress bigger: More representatives will lead to more of the budget being spent on public goods.

Christiansen’s analysis is based on “strategic delegation” — the idea that it may be in a district’s best interest to elect a representative who doesn’t share the district’s preferences. For example, a district’s voters may prefer the Democratic candidate in a year when the GOP will control Congress. Because a member of the majority has more influence, the district may get more priorities taken care of (e.g. funding for a new hospital) by electing the Republican.

The model Christiansen uses in the paper is based on a simplified system in which representatives are either “hogs” (they want to maximize the pork projects brought home to their district), or “pubs” (they want to maximize a single public good.). Their jobs are to divide up a fixed set of money, but the money must go to the public good or to a specific representative’s pork project. Christiansen examined a variety of situations and found that districts preferring hogs will sometimes be best off if they elect pubs and reap the rewards of a well-funded public good. On the other hand, districts preferring pubs will never be better off if they elect hogs. Because hog districts can elect pubs but not vice versa, there will always be at least as many pub representatives as pub districts. The result is that increasing the number of districts can increase the proportion of pubs but not hogs. Thus, increasing the number of districts ought to increase the proportion of the budget that goes toward the public good.

We show that voters have an incentive to strategically delegate to affect how the budget is divided at the legislative level. When voters’ preferences for pork are not too strong, the incentives for strategic delegation exist to appoint representatives who will direct more money to the public good and not to pork projects. This generally results in at least as many representatives as districts that favor the public good. The comparative statics predict that when strategic delegation occurs, increasing the size of the legislature increases the fraction of the budget spent on the public good.

The reality of the American political system is obviously more complex than the model in the paper, but the implication is that increasing the size of Congress might make spending more efficient. This should thrill liberals because it gives people more government services, but it should also thrill conservatives because spending on public goods is generally less wasteful than spending on a specific district.
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Christiansen, N. (2012). Strategic Delegation in a Legislative Bargaining Model with Pork and Public Goods Journal of Public Economics DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2012.10.001

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