Putting the ‘Represent’ in House of Representatives

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Last Sunday the New York Times published on op-ed piece advocating an increase in the size of the House of Representatives. Not the chamber itself, mind you, but the number of representatives serving therein.

The co-authors, Dalton Conley and Jacqueline Stevens, assert that the House has “lost touch with the public and been overtaken by special interests.”

After pointing out that the current number of representatives – 435 – is set not by Constitutional mandate, but rather by statute, Conley and Stevens rightly present the cold, hard figures that strain the definition of “representation.”

First, perhaps one wonders how we arrived at the magic number of 435 to begin with. It is because of laws passed by Congress in 1911 and in 1929. At the time of the debate on the bill setting the arbitrary limit on the number of representatives, one clear-thinking congressmen made the following observation:

The bill seeks to prescribe a national policy under which the membership of the House shall never exceed 435 unless Congress, by affirmative action, overturns the formula and abandons the policy enunciated by this bill. I am unalterably opposed to limiting the membership of the House to the arbitrary number of 435. Why 435? Why not 400? Why not 300? Why not 250, 450, 535, or 600? Why is this number 435 sacred? What merit is there in having a membership of 435 that we would not have if the membership were 335 or 535? There is no sanctity in the number 435 … There is absolutely no reason, philosophy, or common sense in arbitrarily fixing the membership of the House at 435 or at any other number.

The opinion piece agrees:

The result [of the law passed in 1911 that set the number of representatives at 435] 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 ration the founders awarded themselves.

That ratio – the one established by the Constitution – is set forth in Article I, Section 2. “The Number of Representative shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand….” The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 settled on this number after considering proposals for setting the ratio at one representative per every 40,000 (the original ratio reported out of Committee) and one for every 35,000. Additionally, there was some heated debate over whether the relative wealth of a state, as well as population should be a factor in the equation determining representation in the House.

Upon reading the debates of the Convention in this matter and crunching the numbers, one realizes that the issue most concerning to the Framers was not that the House would be too small, but that it would be too large. James Madison himself expressed such a worry when he wrote in the Federalist Papers, “Had every Athenian been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

In the article printed in the Times, the effect of statutorily fiddling with the Constitution’s math is succinctly stated:

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 the representatives have a harder time connecting with the people back in their districts.

Well said. There is strong historical support for this theory, as well. Madison similarly expressed the need for constituents to feel connected to their representatives to the national legislature. In Federalist No. 57 he wrote,

The house of representatives . ..can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as the great mass of society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interest, and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny.

And in another Federalist letter:

The members of the legislative department … are numerous. They are distributed and dwell among the people at large. Their connections of blood, of friendship, and of acquaintance embrace a great proportion of the most influential part of the society…they are more immediately the confidential guardians of their rights and liberties.

For at least a decade, scores of respected journalists, political scientists, and commentators have been calling for a repeal of the Reapportionment Act of 1929 that capped the size of the House at 435. In a November 2001 article printed in The Hill, Matthew Cossolotto muses:

What’s going on here? After all, the framers of the Constitution envisioned that the House would grow in size along with the country’s population. This was supposed to take place every 10 years as a party of the reapportionment process following each decennial census.

He’s right. James Madison participated in that debate and wrote, “I take for granted…that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution.”

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