Jump to content

Build a Bigger House


Recommended Posts


Op-Ed Contributors

Build a Bigger House


Published: January 23, 2011

WITH the Senate preparing to debate filibuster reform, now is a good time to consider a similarly daunting challenge to democratic representation in the House: its size. It’s been far too long since the House expanded to keep up with population growth and, as a result, it has lost touch with the public and been overtaken by special interests.

Indeed, the lower chamber of Congress has had the same number of members for so long that many Americans assume that its 435 seats are constitutionally mandated.

But that’s wrong: while the founders wanted to limit the size of the Senate, they intended the House to expand based on population growth. Instead of setting an absolute number, the Constitution merely limits the ratio of members to population. “The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every 30,000,” the founders wrote. They were concerned, in other words, about having too many representatives, not too few.

When the House met in 1787 it had 65 members, one for every 60,000 inhabitants (including slaves as three-fifths of a person). For well over a century, after each census Congress would pass a law increasing the size of the House.

But after the 1910 census, when the House grew from 391 members to 433 (two more were added later when Arizona and New Mexico became states), the growth stopped. That’s because the 1920 census indicated that the majority of Americans were concentrating in cities, and nativists, worried about of the power of “foreigners,” blocked efforts to give them more representatives.

By the time the next decade rolled around, members found themselves reluctant to dilute their votes, and the issue was never seriously considered again.

The result is that Americans today are numerically the worst-represented group of citizens in the country’s history. The average House member speaks for about 700,000 Americans. In contrast, in 1913 he represented roughly 200,000, a ratio that today would mean a House with 1,500 members — or 5,000 if we match the ratio the founders awarded themselves.

This disparity increases the influence of lobbyists and special interests: the more constituents one has, the easier it is for money to outshine individual voices. And it means that representatives have a harder time connecting with the people back in their districts.

What’s needed, then, is a significant increase in the size of the House by expanding the number, and shrinking the size, of districts. Doing so would make campaigns cheaper, the political value of donations lower and the importance of local mobilizing much greater.

Smaller districts would also end the two-party deadlock. Orange County, Calif., might elect a Libertarian, while Cambridge, Mass., might pick a candidate from the Green Party.

Moreover, with additional House members we’d likely see more citizen-legislators and fewer lifers. In places like New York or Chicago, we would cross at least one Congressional district just walking a few blocks to the grocery store. Our representatives would be our neighbors, people who better understood the lives and concerns of average Americans.

More districts would likewise mean more precision in distributing them equitably, especially in low-population states. Today the lone Wyoming representative covers about 500,000 people, while her lone counterpart in Delaware reports to 900,000.

The increase would also mean more elected officials working on the country’s business, reducing the reliance on unaccountable staffers. Most of the House’s work is through committees, overseeing and checking government agencies.

With more people in Congress, House committee members could see to this critical business themselves — and therefore be more influential, since a phone call from an actual member is a lot more effective than a request from the committee staff.

True, more members means more agendas, legislation and debates. But Internet technology already provides effective low-cost management solutions, from Google Documents to streaming interactive video to online voting.

The biggest obstacle is Congress itself. Such a change would require the noble act — routine before World War I but unheard of since — of representatives voting to diminish their own relative power.

So if such reform is to happen, it will have to be driven by grassroots movements. Luckily, we are living in just such a moment: the one thing Move On and the Tea Party can agree on is that the Washington status quo needs to change. So far this year, that has meant shrinking government. But in this case, the best solution might just be to make government — or at least the House of Representatives — bigger.

Dalton Conley is a professor of sociology, medicine and public policy at New York University and the author of “Elsewhere, U.S.A.” Jacqueline Stevens is a professor of political science at Northwestern and the author of “States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals.”

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think we already have enough deadbeats who never did an honest days work not speaking for us as it is. We don't need expansion, we need an enema.

I like the idea of diluting power. Get more of them and cut their pay. Go back to true citizen service instead of this career politician mentality.

I understand the value of having experienced legislators who know how the system works, but I think that is counterbalanced by having people who are so entrenched in their power that they no longer represent the people. If you are "getting things done" that help special interests instead of help the people who elect you, I'd rather have someone who doesn't know how the system works but at least has my best interest at heart.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I like the idea of diluting power. Get more of them and cut their pay. Go back to true citizen service instead of this career politician mentality.

I can agree with this. Make it undesirable as an actual career to get people in there who really want to do something.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...