Finding the Mean
"No political problem is less susceptible to a precise solution than that which relates to the number convenient for a representative legislature...."
The Federalist, No. 54
For two centuries, the problem of the appropriate size of a legislative body has remained unsolved. The difficulty, as Madison described it in the celebrated Federalist No. 10, is to find "a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found." The dilemma was well put by the State Commission on the Governmental Operations of the City of New York, which examined the conveniences and inconveniences of city councils of various sizes in 1961. The commission found that "few guidelines exist to help fix size." A council should be "large enough to be truly representative, to provide for a deliberation of public issues, to prevent control by corrupt influences, and to guard against too easy a combination for improper purposes." But at the same time it should be "small enough to get capable men and women, to avoid confusion and expedite action, to avert excessive involvement by its members in administrative details, and to center responsibility for its action or inaction." 1 In sum, there is neither an abstract optimal size for a national, state, or city legislature nor an accepted formula for establishing legislative size, because decisions on size involve fundamental matters of representation, governmental effectiveness, political accountability, and the competitiveness of the city's political system.
The purpose of this essay is to review what is known about the effects of the size of legislative bodies and to examine the implications of altering the size of the current New York City Council (which has thirty-five members elected from single-member districts). The essay addresses the central issue of representation,