Is It Time to Expand the Size of Congress?

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Category: Congress & Congressional Power, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public
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Seal of US House of RepresentativesOn August 8, 1911, President William Howard Taft signed a bill authorizing an increase in the size of the House of Representatives from 391 members to 433. A provision in the bill also provided that two additional members would be added in 1912, following the scheduled admission of New Mexico and Arizona as the 47th and 48th states, and thereby raising the size of the House to 435, which is still the size of the House.

This means that since the admission of Arizona as the 48th state on Valentine’s Day, 1912, the size of the House of Representatives has remained unchanged for the 101.5 years. (The admission of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959 increased the size of the United States Senate from 96 members to 100, but a decision was made at that time to keep the size of the House at 435.)

The 1910 Census reported the population of the United States as slightly more than 92 million people. In comparison, the figure for 2010 was slightly less than 309 million, an increase of more than 330%. This means that every Congressman today represents more than three times as many people as his or her counterpart of a century ago.

The original idea regarding representation was that congressional districts should be small enough that citizens would have confidence that their elected representative would be able to represent their immediate interests. However, the average congressional district of today has more than 700,000 constituents and is larger than 16 of the 46 states in 1910.

If we go back further into our constitutional past, the disparity is even greater. In the Congressional Resolution passed on September 25, 1789, endorsing a Bill of Rights for the Constitution and submitting the proposed amendments to the states, the original First Amendment required the creation of a minimum of one congressional district for every 50,000 people.

As it turned out, this was the only one of these “original” amendments that did not become part of the Constitution. Had the original first amendment been adopted, Congress today would be made up of approximately 6,180 members, which all but the most fervent admirers of the Founding Fathers and advocates of constitutional localism would likely agree is too large.

Under the relevant provisions of the Constitution (Article I, sec. 2, cl. 3, and Sec. 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment) the size of the House of Representatives is left entirely to the Congress to determine, with the restriction that unless the population of a state is under that number, every Congressional District must have a population of at least 30,000 citizens. This would currently rule out the possibility of a 10,300 seat House (or anything larger).

But to say that 6,000 (or 10,000) members is too many does not mean that 435 is not too few. Had the ratios embraced by the 1911 bill remained the norm, there would currently be 1,436 members in the House of Representatives. While most observers would react by saying that 1400 would also be too large, would that actually be the case? Or is that reaction just a predictable response to the unfamiliarity of the idea. (We are conditioned by experience to assume that 435 is the proper size of the House of Representatives. To remember a House that did not have 435 members, a person would have to be at least 110 years old, which is pretty much the equivalent of remembering the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.)

It does seem possible that the House of Representatives in its current form is too small and that representatives are too far removed from their constituents, at least by traditional norms. Perhaps an influx of additional new members could help improve the image of Congress, which appears to be at an historic low. One thing is clearly true, dealing with a 6,000-member House of Representatives would change the way that lobbyists do business.

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4 Responses to “Is It Time to Expand the Size of Congress?”

  1. Brent DeBord Says:

    A couple of years ago, I began a blog on radically reworking the U.S. Constitution to deal with the structural problems our government has today.

    A number of posts dealt with the problems of the House, including the size limit.

    Here’s a link to one of those posts for the curious: http://ruminationsofthepurplerhino.com/2010/07/24/radically-changing-the-legislature-rebuilding-the-house/

    Consider that during the Constitutional Convention, the idea that there ought to be one representative for every 30,000 people was a subject of discussion. Please consider also that at the time of the Founding, for every 30,000 people, only 1-in-5 could vote. Thus, really each Representative would have been representing 6,000 people. Imagine a Congress with 10,000 members [if 1 per 30K] or one with 50,000 [if 1 per 6K]. The House would have to meet in a medium sized sports stadium. A bit unwieldy, eh?

    What I’ve recently been considering is having a super-large House of Representatives, but having each State delegation also serve as a branch of the State Legislature in addition to their Federal offices. A limited number of leaders from the entire number of Congresspeople could be elected to act as a sort of super-committee to manage and coordinate the scattered delegations, which would be much easier to do in our modern technological age. One benefit of this decentralized House would be protecting continuity of government against terrorism or enemy attack. With all of Congress seated in one building in our age of atomic and biological weapons, one nuclear bomb could eliminate our democratic branch of government.

  2. Brent DeBord Says:

    Some more thoughts:

    At 1 Representative per 30K, the most populous state -California – would have 1,268 Representatives and the least populous – Wyoming – would have 18. Even in barren Wyoming, this is a large enough delegation to allow for some form of proportional representation.

    Other problems our current system has are related to the single-member, first-past-the-post congressional districts: Gerrymandering; perpetually safe seats; lost votes and unrepresented citizens due to packing-and-cracking strategies; and state delegations that consist of only one party. Please consider the 2012 House elections in two states: Massachusetts and Montana. In Massachusetts, all 9 Representatives are of the Democratic Party though almost 30% of the general state population voted Republican. In Montana, its sole Representative is Republican, but 43% of the Montanans voted Democratic. Those minority parties are effectively unrepresented in our hyper-partisan system.

    With a larger Congress, we could do some sort of mixed system where the single-member, first-past-the-post districts would continue to exist alongside some form(s) or proportional representation. This would preserve whatever advantages the SMD, FPTP system has while still allowing for experimentation with PR systems.

    Personally, I’m a fan of a variation of Mexico’s Guaranteed Minority Representation system. In Mexico’s GMR, there are districts composed of 3 Representatives. Whichever party wins the majority in that district gets 2 while the second-place party gets the 1 remaining. I prefer a version where the districts are composed of 5 members and the split is 3/2, if one party gets a majority. But, if no party cracks 50%+1, then the split is 2/2/1 between the top three parties. Seems fairer to me and gives third-parties a chance. This type of system also avoids the problem of pure PR systems where small, fringe-parties are able to win a few seats, possibly giving them more power than they merit.

    Hope I haven’t rambled on too much, but this is a favorite hobby subject of mine. Thanks for writing on it and I hope to hear from you and others on this so we might have a stimulating and enlightening dialogue.

  3. Stuart Campbell Says:

    I am doing some research on this topic. I’m curious on what ratio you are referring to in the 1911 Reapportionment Act that would lead to the number of Reps being 1,436 if applied to today’s population. From just a simple calculation from the census data, I resulted in a number around 1,800 Reps. Please inform me of the ratio and method of calculation used.

    Thanks,
    Stuart

  4. Thought about this for last couple of years and yes I believe this would be great for the country, but I will probably not be here if ever adopted.

    Also, repeal of the 17th amendment and give back the power of the senate to the state legislatures should receive consideration.

    We live in a country without true representation. Why not have 50 in the house instead of 435.(silly) To much power in to few hands. There is no way 435 representatives can represent the millions that live in the U.S.

    A increase by 10 fold in the “Peoples” house would
    accomplish the following.

    Greater minority representation.
    Greater opportunity for third parties.
    No need for term limits. (vote your neighbor out)
    No need for campaign finance reform. (small campaigns)
    Reduce the stranglehold of lobbyists.
    Gerrymandering will be a thing of the past.

    I am sure there are other benefits and perhaps some con unknown consequences, but truly, amendment is needed to return our country to the greatest process know to man. A Democratic Republic.

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