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.

17 Responses to Increasing the Size of Congress: Would It Work?

  • A few thoughts –

    – A good portion of Congressional staffs deals with constituent services. Smaller disticts would mean smaller staffs per Congressman.
    – Smaller districts would practically eliminate gerrymandering and other reapportionment abuses.
    – Campaign spending per race would have to decline because there’s only so much money to go around, but also because it’s easier to get your name out to a smaller number of people. The advantage of incumbency would be reduced. There are all kinds of related issues about candidates and Congressmen interacting with citizens, but they seem like a creepy thing to talk about today.

  • Here is a list of legislatures by size. Throw out the supersized legislatures of dictatorships like China and you end up with the largest being the EU (with 736 members) and the UK (with 646 House of Commons). My guess is that once you get passed the 600-700 member mark it becomes impossible to run a legislature according to currency practices. Either the members would have to cede effective control to party leaders (in which case the effective size of the legislature might actually be smaller than now), or party politics would break down, and you would end up with something like the Landsgemeinde one level removed.

    My guess is that you would end up weakening the power of Congress relative to the Presidency. You might also end up weakening federal power relative to the states, though this is less clear.

  • The number of local communities to be represented does not increase in step with population size. The size of a legislature should bear a mathematical relationship to the size of the population represented. One problem we have right now is that districts are not assemblages of identifiable communities, but are drawn for member interests or for purposes of judicially imposed racial patronage. (Compare Louise Slaughter’s district as is to what it should be and you will see what I mean). Another is that our legislatures are populated by people with no other vocation than (of which Sen. Schumer is an extreme example) and permanent incumbents (of which Robert Byrd was an extreme example). These are the problems you need to address.

  • The House of Commons in Great Britain has 650 members with about 20% of our population. I think we could probably increase the House up to that size. Much beyond that and I think the House size would become unworkable as per BA’s earlier comment. I think I would favor that increase, if only to see the antics when reapportionment took place and the new seats were alloted!

  • It might be wise to think about slowly raising the number of folks in the House, and also going towards electronic commuting to DC. (I’m a big fan of telecommuting for a lot of our reps just on the “dang, that’s EXPENSIVE!!!!” front. I still haven’t recovered from the notion of 60 folks losing office resulting in 2k folks losing their jobs.)

    I do sort of wonder… how often are folks actually IN the House? When my class visited, it was pretty empty….

    There’s always the notion of consolidating states into one or two offices and similar ways around the cost-worry. Or, y’know, a pay cut for them….

  • “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!”

    I see the theme of Rawhide playing as the great Congress Critter drive of 2020 gets under way!

  • Maybe those critics at the Founding, looking at our system today, would say the nation has just gotten too large to be governed centrally by any size Congress. Or they might ask why we were stupid enough to take the choosing of senators away from the state legislatures — who are already closer to the people — and gave it to the commons. They might also point out that if we’d restricted the federal government to the few responsibilities enumerated in the Constitution, it wouldn’t matter much how many of them there are or how closely we can watch over them.

    I suspect expanding their numbers would have a larger partisan effect than you’re thinking, in favor of Republicans (which is why it can’t happen). I live in the 17th district in Illinois, which is a marvel of gerrymandering. It uses thin corridors of land to tie together the union-rich Quad Cities area with several conservative-leaning smaller towns in other parts of the state — but not enough of them that they’ll ever swing Republican. (Unless an incumbent becomes incredibly arrogant and incompetent and says he doesn’t care about the Constitution in a year when people are actually paying attention, but what are the odds of that?) If you split that district in half, you’d end up with a Dem district and a GOP district. Split it in thirds, and you get two GOP districts.

    Since cities are almost always more liberal than the rural areas around them, that situation should be more common than its opposite. That’s my guess, anyway; but I’d be interested to see what someone who’s studied the idea would say.

  • The emigration of people out of bankrupt blue states may be a long term solution.

    Another solution to the republic’s decline may be to disenfranchise those who live off the taxpayers’ dime, i.e., welfare/food stamps recipients and GSE and civil service employees voting themselves pay raises: talk about conflicts of interest.

  • “I live in the 17th district in Illinois, which is a marvel of gerrymandering.”

    That’s the understatement of the decade! The district was so drawn in 2001 in order to protect the Dem incumbent at the time (Lane Evans). One of those “thin corridors of land” runs through Springfield, where it’s only a few blocks wide; it exists purely to connect Decatur (very blue collar, Democrat town, 40 miles east) to the rest of the district.

    As for the size of Congress, it’s been fixed at 435 House members for over 100 years now. Perhaps it is about time to expand it a bit. Maybe assign one Congresscritter for every 250,000 to 500,000 people (the next Congress after reapportionment will have about 750,000 + constituents to every member). States that gain population can then gain seats without having to take them away from other states.

    A smaller legislative body is not always a better or more efficient one, as Illinois voters have learned since they cut back the size of their State House of Representatives by 1/3 in 1980. The smaller the body, the easier it is for their caucus leaders (Speaker/Minority Leader/Whip) to make them toe the party line. They can easily become “mushrooms” who are kept in the dark and fed you -know-what.

    Finally, I must take strong exception to T. Shaw’s suggestion that anyone who “lives off the taxpayer’s dime” should not be allowed to vote. That would disenfranchise me, of course, as I work for the state.

    If anything, people who work for the state or federal governments may have a better grasp of some of the beneficial or disastrous effects of a particular administration’s policies, since they see them from the inside, and are privy to information not always known to the general public.

    An ordinary federal or state employee cannot “vote themselves a pay raise” — only actual Congresscritters and legislators can do that.

  • A simple and passable formula would be to have the membership of the sovereign legislature equal the cube root of the population.

  • Or they might ask why we were stupid enough to take the choosing of senators away from the state legislatures — who are already closer to the people — and gave it to the commons.

    Closer to the people – and a racket. Here in New York, we have had for decades a highly gerrymandered split legisalture in thrall to its leadership. We would get a Senator appointed by Shelly Silver and one appointed by the successor to jailbird Joe Bruno. You’ll love it.

    Changing settlement patterns have made the states in their current boundaries somewhat problematic as units of provincial government. Some states (New York and Illinois among them) ought to be made confederations of their ill-matched components and some components thereof ought to be united by inter-state compact with components of neighboring states. (Among other adjustments).

  • The Senate is a bit of a different issue, but Art raises some fair points. That being said, can you really do any worse than Chuck Schumer?

    I think a slightly bigger House – out to something on the order of 7-800 seats – is doable. As for partisan breakdown, I think things would balance out. Sure you’d wind up with more representation in the northeast, but a state like Florida, with a current 24R, 5D breakdown would surely send a few more Democrats. In the end, I think the House as it is currently stands presents a fairly decent reflection of the overall partisan breakdown in the country, at least as of the last election.

  • As Robert Benchley remarked “Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I take two aspirin and go lie down”.
    Increase the number of politicians? Have you lost your mind?

  • That being said, can you really do any worse than Chuck Schumer?

    Schumer has a reputation for being an unpleasant man and also unscrupulous, but in a way that indicates contempt and malice rather than cupidity. I suspect he would need much better one-on-one people skills to make it with the legislature. Curiously, though, he survived the redistricting process in 1990, which Stephen Solarz did not.

    Schumer is also noted for the legislative equivalent of Daniel Boorstin’s ‘pseudo-events': petty crap whose purpose is public relations. Since this stuff often trespasses on the prerogatives of more particular legislative bodies, he might be rather inclined to irritate people (or might just adopt different tactics, who knows?).

    I think you would get a string of people like Alphonse d’Amato and Dede Scozzafava (a.k.a ‘Scuzzyfavors’). Much more personable and given to pork pork pork.

  • Elaine,

    Since you work for state government, you’re probably aware that your fellow state workers vote overwhelmingly for one party. Do you really think that’s because they “are privy to information not always known to the general public,” or could it be that they know one party is better for their employment and income prospects? Did they vote for Quinn — the lieutenant of an impeached governor, for goodness sake — because they thought he’d be best for the state, or because he’d be best for state workers?

    No, you can’t vote yourself a pay raise. But when half the population gets a paycheck (or welfare check or subsidy check or grant check or some other kind of check) from government, they can vote for the guy most likely to give them a pay raise — or at least the guy more inclined to deal with the $15B deficit by raising taxes than by cutting state jobs and handouts.

  • “your fellow state workers vote overwhelmingly for one party”

    Not necessarily. Sangamon County, in which Springfield is located, is actually strongly Republican despite being home to a very large number of state employees. Blago only got 20 percent of the vote there in 2006 — his second-to-worst showing statewide. Quinn didn’t win here either (he only got 34 percent of the vote to Brady’s 58 percent) despite AFSCME and other unions pulling out all the stops for him. Believe it or not, of late I have even heard co workers who are lifelong Democrats complain that far too MANY state employees are unionized.

  • The staff of the state office I used to work in had 10 employees during my time there: 2 explicit Republicans, 1 ambivalent, 4 non-committal, 2 (non-militant) Democrats, and 1 woman who made a stink when I brought in a book by Reinhold Niebuhr to read during my break time.

    I suspect, Aaron, that if you look outside the education and social work apparat and control for demographic categories, you will find that the bias toward the Democratic Party among state and local employees is nothing compared to what it is among college faculty or journalists. The central government is a different bit of business, however, as can be seen looking at the corps of office holders in greater Washington.

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