As part of a series called Constitution Café, moderator Chris Phillips is asking some thought-provoking questions about foundational constitutional issues. This week: Do we need a House of Representatives with many more members?
The only stipulation the Constitution makes regarding the size of the House of Representatives is, as Article I Section 2 puts it, that the ‘number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand.’ It used to be that the House regularly increased the number of members as the population grew. But in 1911, House members froze the number at 435. Except for one brief occasion, it has remained at that number ever since.
In 1911, our population was less than 94 million. A hundred years later, we have a population of over 308 million people, but we’re still stuck at 435 members of the House. Can you have very ‘representative’ representatives who heed the will of their people when the number of members hasn’t gone up as the population has swelled?
The mindset among the members of Congress who passed this law over a century ago was that if House membership got any bigger, it’d be unwieldy. But the Framers felt that only by increasing the number of members as the population grew is genuine representation possible. Yet every representative today has more than 700,000 constituents. Is this why fewer than 10 percent of Americans have a favorable view of their elected representatives in the House?
What if we had one member of Congress for every 30,000 constituents, as George Washington envisioned, and as our Constitution allows? That’d give us about 10,000 members of the House!
Would that be too unwieldy? Or would it be a modern-day version of how the Greeks in ancient Athens gathered in a stadium to deal with legislative matters?
Whenever an assembly was called into session, the first 6,000 men to arrive at the stadium on the top of the Acropolis Hill took part in the vote on the measure. It was a large and raucous gathering, and the people’s business was accomplished. Besides that, if we’d kept gradually increasing House membership all along, would we think 10,000 was so dramatic a figure (any more than the Greeks would have)?
James Madison tried (and failed) to enact an amendment in the Bill of Rights that guaranteed an increase in the House as the population increased, and that set a ceiling of one House member per 50,000 constituents. His proposed amendment read:
"After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one representative for every 30,000, until the number shall amount to 100, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than 100 representatives, nor less than one representative for every 40,000 persons, until the number of representatives shall amount to 200; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than 200 representatives, nor more than one representative for every 50,000 persons.”
What do you think? Is it time to enact Madison’s proposed amendment, and have one representative for every 50,000 constituents? Or do you have an even better idea for bringing about real ‘representativeness’ in our House?
Just let us know in the comments area below:
Chris is a Senior Education Fellow with the National Constitution Center as well as a 2014-15 Network Fellow with Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Ethics Center. He is also the author of Constitution Cafe: Jefferson's Brew for a True Revolution.