Increasing the Size of Congress: Would It Work?
One of the main objections that critics of the Constitution had was that the proposed U.S. House of Representatives would be too small. Article I, Section 2 decreed that the number of representatives should not exceed one for every thirty thousand. Critics feared that such an enumeration would mean that the districts would be far too large, and the representatives would not be close enough to the people they represent. State ratifying convention offered up several amendments to this plan, and the first Congress included a revision to this section as one of the twelve original amendments to the Constitution. In fact, if it had been ratified it would have been the first amendment, and it so read:
Article the first … After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.
As it turned out, this was only of the original twelve never to be ratified by the states. Ten were immediately ratified and became known collectively as the Bill of Rights, and an 11th – dealing with Congressional pay raises – was ratified in 1992 and became the 27th Amendment.
If critics were outraged at congressional districts of 30,000, imagine their horror at today’s apportionment. After the 2000 census the average size of a congressional district jumped to 646,952, a number that has swelled to just over 700,000 in light of the recent census. In other words, Congressional districts are roughly 23 times larger than originally planned.
So if the states ever got around to ratifying what would have been the first amendment, Congress would increase about fifteen-fold, or to 6,525, as opposed to the current total of 435. And if we went with the original number prescribed in the Constitution, there would be just over 10,000 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Yee-haw!
It’s probably safe to assume that we will not be increasing the number of representatives by that margin anytime soon. But as something of a fun little thought experiment, what would happen if we “merely” increased the House by triple it current size?There would certainly be practical objections to the plan. I’m having difficulty pinpointing a capacity number of the US House Chamber, but having seen it up close I can attest that there is no way they could fit close to 1300 individuals on a regular basis, if at all. Even if you pack the galleries I would imagine that there would not be enough room.
Another practical problem is that this would entail a not-inconsiderable budget outlay. We would have close to 900 more people all making in excess of $170,000. On top of that, there would be staff increases. Of course with shrunken congressional districts we might be able to decrease staff sizes from where they are now, but certainly there would be a net increase of staff. And I’m sure there would be other associated costs – office budgets, travel, increased security, etc. – that would bring the total costs well past a billion dollars, and probably more. Small potatoes compared to the overall size of the budget, but significant nonetheless.
Laying those concerns aside, what would be the pluses and minuses of a tripling of the size of the House of Representatives? On the plus side, district sizes would be reduced, thereby bringing Congressmen close to their constituents. Not only would districts be smaller numerically, but the physical sizes of districts would also be reduced, and that would serve rural areas very well. There would no longer be any single-member states, so we wouldn’t have to have one person represent a state the size of Montana any longer.
It probably wouldn’t make much of a difference in the partisan breakdown of Congress. I’m sure Michael Barone could instantly conjure up a theoretical breakdown of a 1,315 member US House of Representatives, but my hunch is that, percentage-wise, it would be similar to the current House of Representatives.
But would it really make a difference in the end? There would certainly be more diversity in the type of representative. Whether or not we would witness a corresponding increase in the quality of representative is another matter. Operationally, imagine having to organize, instead of a 242-person caucus, but rather a 750-member caucus. Now it’s possible that there might be more third-party membership in this scenario, but that doesn’t necessarily follow. After all, state legislative districts are even smaller, and there has hardly been much third party infiltration in these areas.
It might be offered that with so many more Congressional seats at stake it would reduce the relative influence of money in each race. While the amount of money dedicated each year to partisan fund-raising is hardly static, it would not be unrealistic to assume that the average amount dedicated to each race would decline by some amount. However, this would only help incumbents, as challengers are the ones who generally need more money in order to gain greater name recognition. It’s true that the value of a campaign dollar triples under this scenario, but the overall pool will be lessened, and parties and individual donors will have to be even more cautious in deciding what races to become involved in. In the end, I would suspect that re-elect rates for incumbents would increase rather than decrease under an expanded House.
There is one last thing to consider. The original 30,000 number is not strictly comparable for several reasons. First of all, obviously we do not have a class of people who only count 3/5ths of a whole. Second, the eligible electorate has increased substantially since 1787, what with the 19th Amendment, the eradication of slavery, the elimination of property requirements, and the expansion of the franchise to all over the age of 18. So a typical district’s electorate has not increased 23-fold, but probably more on the order of 50- or 60-fold. On the other hand, improvement in communications technology means that it is far easier now to reach 700,000 people than it was to even reach 30,000 over 200 years ago. Obviously districts the size of large American cities are going to mean that representatives will be less familiar with individual constituents regardless of technological advances, but the communications revolution does mitigate some of the disadvantages of large districts.
Personally, I don’t think there is much to be gained with increasing the size of the House of Representatives. I don’t see that many benefits, and there are more than a few drawbacks. I am curious to see what readers think.