In an article on visir.is, Þorvaldur Gylfason, a member of the constitutional council, argues that the size of parliament should be reduce from 63 to 53 seats. Þorvaldur, a former colleague at the University of Iceland, had actually asked me to put together a short summary about research on the size of legislature before the Supreme Court invalidated the outcome of the election to the Constitutional Assembly – at which point I put the matter aside and then, apparently, forgot about it. Þorvaldur’s article was a timely reminder so here are my two cents.
In short, not a whole has been written about the size of legislatures and much of it focuses on the effects legislature size on government spending. Most research finds that larger legislatures spend more. The argument is that individual legislatures are concerned with winning election and in order to win election are more likely to propose pork barrel projects to build a personal vote base. In addition, larger legislative size makes pork barrel projects cheaper as the deliver target benefits while the costs are distributed more widely (greater number of districts). A lot of this literature is focused on the U.S. where the conjecture appears to be supported by the empirical evidence (in unicameral legislatures). Mukherjee (2003) does find the same effect in a cross-national study. As pork barrel politics appear to have been fairly important in Iceland historically and the preferential votes system is not likely to reduce those incentives, reducing the size of Althingi can be expected to reduce government spending (which may or may not be a good thing depending on one’s political leanings). On the other hand, Primo and Snyder (2005) work suggests that the type of spending that is affected are, as the argument above suggests, inefficient pork barrel projects, which are less controversial. However, that depends a lot on what the electoral system will look like – pork barrel projects may very well benefit the rural areas, which traditionally have been overrepresented in Althingi. That said, even under a preferential voting, it seems quite plausible that legislators/candidates will seek to carve out ‘strongholds’ even if the country is a one electoral district.
There is no question that Iceland’s legislature is large given the country’s population – there are roughly 5060 citizens for each legislator. Only Tuvalu, Andorra, and Antigua and Barbuda have fewer citizen per legislator. One implication of this is that under the preferential vote system shaking hands and kissing babies (hopefully they will stop short of kissing chickens as Irish politicians have been known to do) really looks like a feasible strategy. Randomly looking up MPs, I found, e.g., that Helgi Hjorvar has 2407 friends on facebook – surely that is enough to get elected under the preferential system. Reducing the number of MPs from 63 to 53 is, however, unlikely to make much of difference – it increases the number of citizens per legislator by slightly less than thousand. Thus, under the preferential system, shaking hands, doing favors and providing pork would remain a feasible strategy unless a much larger reduction in the number of legislators was undertaken.
However, at 63 legislators, Althingi is already a small legislature. A lot of the discourse about the reform has focused on strengthening Althingi – although I think that discourse is in large part based on rather strange ideas about parliamentary regimes. Leaving my skepticism aside, the literature on legislature frequently cites strong committee systems as an important, if not the primary, source of legislatures’ power vis-a-vis the executive. One strand of those arguments focuses on institutional powers (ability to amend bills or kill bills in committee – which often are absent or dominated by party discipline in parliaments). Such institutional powers are not likely to be affected by the number of legislators. Another strand of arguments about the importance of legislative committees focuses on the opportunity that permanent legislative committees offer MPs to specialize. As it stands there are 12 permanent committees composed of nine MPs each (11 for the the budget committee). Thus, on average, each MP serves on 1.74 committees. That seems quite a lot to me and I am skeptical that this allows MPs to become specialists in any policy area. Reducing the number of MPs by 10 would increase that to 2.07 committees per MP, which certainly won’t help matter. All in all, if one considers the committees the way to increase parliament’s influence, I think there is a strong case for increasing the number of MPs.
Parliament’s role is not just to legislate – it is supposed to provide oversight. One might argue that Althingi failed spectacularly in its oversight role in the years leading the the economic crash in 2008, which in no small part pushed the constitutional reform forward. Despite being charged with protecting the interests of its citizens, not a single MP (save one minister) thought it necessary to resign. The question is why Althingi didn’t take its oversight role seriously. While I don’t know the answer to that question, a part of the problem has to do with Althingi’s resources – including the number of MPs for the reason cited above. If Althingi is to have any real influence on policy or be able to exercise oversight it needs to have the resources to do so – meaning that either it needs to provide the right conditions for MPs to specialize in policy or vastly expand (establish?) Althingi’s research capabilities. The problem with Althingi is not that it is too expensive but that it is too cheap.
There are also some other issues that need to be considered. Ministers have, nearly without exception, been drawn from the legislature. That is, the legislature is effectively the talent pool from which ministers are drawn. What are the effects of shrinking the talent pool? Supposing there are 10 ministers (as proposed by the constitutional council) then nearly two-fifths of the MPs of the governing parties (assuming a narrow majority) are become ministers. Frankly, I find that a little worrying. I’ll quote (a great quote) from Dewan and Myatt (2008) about ministerial selection in the UK:
“Paxman (2003, p. 209) recounted that Tristan Garel-Jones, a whip in a United Kingdom government of the 1980s and a close conﬁdante of Prime Minister John Major, recalled scanning a list of ﬁfteen candidates for a junior ministerial post and thinking
“I wouldn’t employ a single one of them. The problem was that, if you include all the various ranks of ministers, you have to ﬁnd maybe ninety people to form a government. You have perhaps 350 or so people to choose from. Once you’ve eliminated the bad, mad, drunk and over-the hill, you’ve got rid of a hundred. You then have to pick ninety people out of a pool of 250. Is it any wonder that the calibre is so low?” “
Changing the number of MPs is also likely to affect the number of parties (thought how that pans out depends on the electoral system) – most likely reduce the number of parties and raising the barrier of entry for new parties. That brings us back to the size of government. Mukherjee (2003) finds that the number of parties in the legislature has a positive effective on government spending and others have shown that the number of parties in government also increases government spending (Bawn and Rosenbluth) but greater legislative fragmentation should lead to larger coalition governments (i.e., more parties).
In sum, I can see arguments for and against reducing the size of Althingi – in the end I think it depends on the role one wants Althingi to play. However, I think a lot more research is required to offer a conclusion answer. As it stands, we actually know fairly little about what members of Althingi do. For example, how important are the legislative committees in the current system? How much does Althingi amend legislative bills? Are these amendments substantive or are they primarily cosmetic? How important is pork barrel in Icelandic politics? Making an informed decision actually requires answering these questions – and ideally not just rely on our hunches about what the answers might be.