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The congressman from $37,000

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist," a weekly column in the New York Times Magazine.

I can be categorized with many different groups -- parents, bicycle enthusiasts, disheartened Knick fans, Upper West Side New Yorkers. This last is thought to be so telling that it is often used as a shorthand for our politics. But although I share much with people in the neighborhood, I share more with people all over town, all over the country, whose economic circumstances are similar to mine.

Because it is our 1040s not our ZIP Codes that best express our political interests, congressional districts should be re-imagined to comprise not the people who happen to live within a few miles of one another, but those who earn within a few dollars of one another.

We could define a dozen or so income brackets. Every 647,000 people in a bracket -- the number of people assigned to a member of Congress -- would make up a congressional district. These districts could, where possible and convenient, agglomerate people who live more or less near each other, so that geography would not be entirely eliminated as a criterion; some concerns are indeed local. But place of residence would be made secondary to economics.

This approach would generate a series of physically overlapping districts. Depending upon their incomes, people in my apartment building would have different members of Congress. The people in the studio apartments facing the air shaft would not necessarily be lumped with those who have four bedrooms and a terrace.

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There’s nothing unprecedented about this; we already belong to different political parties and an assortment of advocacy groups, such as the AARP or the NRA, unconnected to regionalism. And we’re comfortable with other overlapping political boundaries -- school districts, state assembly districts and election districts, for instance.

The result would be a Congress that better mirrored -- and more vigorously served -- its constituents. If half of all families in the country earn less than $37,000 a year, then half of the House would be elected by -- and sworn to work on behalf of -- those families. If only a handful of people earn seven-figure incomes, they would have only a few representatives.

There are other, less obvious, benefits. Big money’s power to influence elections would be diminished, something campaign finance reform has failed to do. Wealthy interests -- those who would benefit from a low minimum wage, or relaxed clean-air rules for power plants, or a less progressive tax system -- would find it tough to woo a candidate whose working-class constituents oppose such policies. Or at least that candidate would find it awkward to explain why he took their money.

Gerrymandering would also be restrained. Even if we don’t entirely untether a district from geography, its residents would be strongly affiliated by common economic circumstances. It would be possible to gerrymander a district around social and cultural issues -- noneconomic values -- but a low-income district could not be tilted toward a candidate with fealty to the wealthy.

This system would also discourage pork-barrel politics. There would be little impetus to bring, say, a mountaintop submarine base to your district when there is no distinct physical district. Political self-interest would still exist, of course, but a savvy pol would bring home a better brand of bacon. If her district included many low-income parents, for instance, she’d have an incentive to deliver day-care centers or scholarship programs all over the country. And the interests of her district would not be parochial but would mesh with those across the country with similar economic concerns.

Further refinements are possible. Wealth, not just income, could be considered when defining districts. We could include a bracket for retired folks, those who no longer have much income but do have common concerns. We could ignore geography altogether and make districts portable, like cellphone numbers, so that a voter’s district would not change even if he or she moved from Detroit to Denver. And we could redistrict every 10 years as the Constitution requires, accommodating changes in population and income. Under our current system, geography reflects economics (in that people tend to live near others of their economic class), but not very well. My congressional district, New York’s 15th, represented by Charles B. Rangel, includes wealthy denizens of Central Park West and working people in central Harlem; we live in elegant brownstones, in public housing, and behind bars on Rikers Island. How can even the most conscientious member of Congress serve our often clashing interests?

There may have been a time when regional differences neatly translated into political differences, and though that has not vanished, it has dimmed in an era when TV shows, Starbucks, music, food and language are increasingly similar from Los Angeles to Long Island. The primacy of regionalism is a relic of the 18th century. We should abandon it as confidently as we did that era’s reserving the franchise for white male property owners. We should redistrict in a way that will give the majority of Americans a majority in Congress.


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