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Sizes of Legislatures

Sizes of Legislatures

10/11/2007

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of change for state legislatures. It was a period when legislatures were assessing themselves, looking to become more co-equal branches of government rather than "sometime governments." Twenty-two legisaltures shifted from biennial to annual sessions. Many upgraded staffing and facilties in order to strengthen the legislative institution. Baker v. Carr and other "one man, one vote" redistricting decisions in the early 1960s also sparked an interest in state legislatures and legislative size.

Thirty-four states changed their legislative size during these years. Many made multiple modifications. Adjustments to the sizes of legislatures slowed after this flurry of activity. Only five states—Idaho, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wyoming—have made changes since 1990.

Overall, since 1960, there has been a slight downward trend in the total number of state legislators in the country—from 7,781 in 1960 to 7,382 today. Not all legislatures have gotten smaller, however. Examples of states where sizeable reductions or increases in the number of legislators have occurred are:

 Reduced size  Increased size
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  •  Florida
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • Utah

 

Common Arguments

When a change in the size of a legislature is considered, debate typically centers around three major themes:

  1. Representation
  2. Efficiency
  3. Cost

 

Proponents for larger-sized legislatures usually argue that:

  • The more the members, the fewer the constituents. With fewer constituents, a legislator is more likely to have face-to face dealings with them.
  • One political party can more easily dominate a smaller-sized legislature. A smaller-sized legislature also may increase regional rivalries, particular between rural and urban areas.
  • Relatively few political positions are well known by the general population. Reducing the number of legislators probably will not change this fact.
  • The legislative process was not intended to be neat and efficient. The legislature is designed to provide a cross-section of all points of view. Legislators are to study, debate and argue, and finally reach a compromise position that is acceptable to a majority of members.
  • A large number of members allows for a more effective division of labor and specialization. The oversight of administrative agencies is greater among larger legislatures.
  • There is a greater correlation between a state's population and legislative costs than between legislative size and cost.

Proponents for smaller-sized legislatures usually argue that:

  • Fewer legislators does not mean less responsive legislators. Using modern communication mechanisms, a legislator can easily reach, and be reached by, many more constituents.
  • Legislative elections will be more competitive.
  • In a smaller body, the role of a legislator will be more prestigious and more satisfying. A smaller legislature increases the responsibility of each member. Individual legislators have more opportunity to influence decisions. Each legislator should be more visible and therefore more responsive to the voting public.
  • With a smaller legislature, there will be better discussion and clearer debate. There is more opportunity for each member to make his or her views known, to have his or her voice heard.
  • Larger legislatures tend to have more committees. Too many committees result in overlapping and fragmentation of work--making it more difficult for a legislature to formulate coherent, comprehensive policies on broad public questions.
  • Large legislative bodies cost more.


Summary

The authors of The Sometime Governments wrote:

"Ideally, a legislature should be large enough to represent and reflect the diverse elements of its constituency and small enough to get things done."

Each legislature represents a microcosm of its state's people, traditions and political cultures. These factors vary greatly across the country. Opinions about them differ within a state. Consequently, there may never be consensus on what the "right size" for a legislature is.

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