American Voice 2004:  Why are we stuck at 435 members of the US House?

American Voice 2004: Why are we stuck at 435 members of the US House?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q. Why are we stuck at 435 members of the US House? Are we less represented than the Founders intended?

Answer:

Let’s be clear. The Founding Fathers did not create a democracy. They worried that the direct involvement of the people in decision-making could result in political instability. To deal with this problem, they chose to create a republican form of government. The people (or at least some of them) would elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf.

Despite their concerns about direct democracy, however, those who drafted the Constitution wanted people to feel well served by their representatives and to have a stake in government. To achieve this result, they created a Congress with two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House of Representatives represented the people. The Senate represented the states. House members were popularly elected. Elections were frequent – every two years. To allow voters ready access to their Representatives, the size of the House increased as the state and national population increased. The Constitution declared, “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative.”[1]

Senators, on the other hand, were more remote from popular influence. Until 1914 they were elected by their respective state legislatures, not directly by the people.[2] Senators serve 6-year terms. Each state has two senators, regardless of its size.

The Constitution required that the federal government conduct a census every ten years to determine the number and allocation of seats in the House of Representatives.[3]

In 1787 the Constitution established the size of the House of Representatives at 65 members. This was roughly equivalent to one Representative for every 60,000 people.

The 1790 census led to the first apportionment of House members. One result was to increase the number of House members to 105. That number grew with the population until 1913, when the 1910 census boosted the size of the House from 391 to 433 members. That was roughly equivalent to one Representative for every 200,000 people.

Congress decided the House was becoming so large that effective decision-making was threatened. In 1911, Congress fixed the size of the House at 433 members, with provisions for adding one seat each for Arizona and New Mexico when they became states. The House size has remained at 435 since then, except for a temporary increase to 437 at the time Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1960.

Fixing the size of the House rather than the size of congressional districts has had several important results. One is that each Representative has become more and more remote from his or her constituents. In 2004, one Representative speaks for almost 700,000 people.

Another consequence of the new formula is that some states will suffer a decline in representation as their populations grow less rapidly than other states. For example, in 2002 Mississippi had only four House members, half the number it had in 1930. The last time the state had only four congressmen was in the early 1850s, when each would have represented fewer than 125,000 Mississippians had their districts been of equal population (which, at the time, they did not have to be). Today each of Mississippi’s congressional districts contains more than 700,000 residents – 100,000 more people than the entire state contained in 1850.

If a new state were to enter the Union other states would lose some of their Representatives. For example, the admission of Puerto Rico would mean the reassignment of six Congressional seats to Puerto Rico from other states.

From a numerical point of view, it is clear that the representation of the individual citizen is far more limited today than was either expected or endorsed by those who designed our governmental structure.

Some argue that this has undermined the legitimacy of Congress and increased voter cynicism and apathy. They note that the decision to fix the number of House seats was made by Congress. There was no Constitutional amendment. Congress could reverse that decision. Reestablishing the original ratio of one Representative for every 60,000 people would result in a House of Representatives of several thousand people, a large number to be sure, but modern technology could enable an effective decision-making process. And a larger House would inspire greater voter participation, allow for a wider variety of voices and perspectives and reduce the impact of money on elections.

Those who advocate for a much larger House of Representatives also point out that the U.S. has by far the highest number of constituents per Representative. England, for example, has a ratio of 70,000 people per Member of Parliament. Canada’s ratio is about 100,000 people per Member of Parliament.

The majority of observers, on the other hand, argue that the House of Representatives could not become larger without seriously damaging its already challenging and cumbersome decision-making process. They acknowledge that other countries have more congressional representatives than we do, but they note that the overall size of their national congresses is not that different than ours. The House of Commons in Britain has 651 members. Japan’s lower house has 497 while Canada’s has 308. Thus it appears there is an upper limit for the number of people who can effectively participate in decision-making.

As to whether several thousand people can make effective decisions, one might refer to Professor David Held’s observations on democracy in ancient Athens. It is true that a quorum of 6,000 citizens met 40 times a year to make decisions directly. But “The Assembly was too large a body to prepare its own agenda, to draft legislation and to be a focal point for the reception of new political initiatives and proposals. A Council of 500 took responsibility for organizing and proposing public decisions; it was aided, in turn, by a more streamlined Committee of 50 (which served for one month) with a president at its head (who could only hold office for one day).”[4]

Some take the position that the best way to encourage voter participation is not to enlarge the House of Representatives but to reduce the number of decisions that are made far away from where people live. People have a greater voice in local and even state government than they do at the national level. And in a number of states, people can directly make political decisions through the initiative and referendum process.[5]


[1] Article I, Section 2. “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [Modified by Amendment XIV]. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative;…”

[2] In 1913 the 17th Amendment to the Constitution called for the direct election of U.S. Senators.

[3] An apportionment has been made on the basis of each census from 1790 to 1990, except following the census of 1920. Prior to 1870 the population base included the total free population of states, plus three fifths of the number of slaves. American Indians who were not taxed were excluded from the population count. In the 2000 census as in the censuses of 1970 and 1990, certain segments of Americans living overseas, such as US armed forces, civilian federal employees and dependents of both groups were allocated to home states for Congressional apportionment purposes only. These segments of the overseas population were not added to the political subdivisions of the states, nor included in other l970 or l990 census data products.

[4] David Held, Models of Democracy. Oxford: Polity Press. 1996.

[5] See for more information. Initiative and Referendum Institute, University of Southern California.

 

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David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.