If you’re like most Americans, you don’t think much of Congress.
More than 70 percent of us routinely disapproves of the way Congress handles its job. Some of us are repelled by the blind partisanship that dominates Capitol Hill. Others detest the obsession with fundraising. Many of us chafe at the fact that our political views are never shared by our representatives in Washington — yet those representatives are invariably reelected, often unopposed. If you’re an average voter, you’ve probably never met your member of Congress. Then again, if you’re not a major donor, an influential party organizer, or a well-connected lobbyist, your member of Congress probably has little interest in you.
Congress is broken, and has been for a long time. But there’s a way to fix it.
Make it bigger.
As every child learns in school, the House of Representatives was designed to be the people’s chamber. Unlike the Senate, which the Constitution limits to two members per state, the House was to be the branch of the federal government closest to ordinary citizens in their local communities. “It is a sound and important principle that the representative ought to be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 56. Accordingly, districts could not be too large. Article I of the Constitution specified that there be one representative for every 30,000 citizens, and the first Congress convened with 65 members of the House. But that was just to start. The founders took it for granted, as Madison also wrote, “that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution.”
For more than a century, that’s exactly what happened. As the population grew, so did the House of Representatives. Its membership expanded to 105 after the 1790 Census, to 142 after the 1800 Census, and so on. After the 1910 Census, the number of representatives grew to 435. But there it has remained frozen ever since, even as America’s population has soared from 92 million to 332 million. When the House first reached its current size, each member represented an average of 211,000 residents. Today the ratio is one representative for every 763,000 Americans.
To put that in perspective, a typical House member today represents a population larger than that of the entire city of Seattle or Boston. No wonder most Americans think Congress is out of touch. It is! How can any representative possibly be, in Madison’s words, “acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents” when there are more than three-quarters of a million of them? The “People’s House” has never been less connected to the people. Ordinary Americans have never had less of a say in their own government.
Researchers have documented the link between the cap on House districts and diminished representativeness. “Members who represent larger constituencies are on average less responsible and less accessible to their constituents,” writes political scientist Brian Frederick, a scholar at Bridgewater State University who has explored the subject in depth. As congressional districts have grown to the population of large cities, Frederick finds, voters are less likely to report having contact with their representative, let alone a personal meeting. They’re also “less likely to believe their representative[s] would be helpful should the need to contact them arise.”
That’s not all. When members of Congress represented smaller populations, they were less dependent on the goodwill of organized special interests, lobbyists, and the activist base of fervent partisans. But with House districts metastasizing far beyond anything the constitutional architecture was ever meant to support, representatives invariably take political stands at odds with what many, even most, of their constituents would prefer. At the same time, the size of congressional districts makes retail campaigning all but impossible. Candidates must rely on costly mass advertising to get elected. That drives incumbents to devote countless hours to fundraising — and badly stacks the odds against challengers.
If the House of Representatives hadn’t stopped growing in the 1920s, all these ill effects would be less likely today.
No Constitutional amendment is needed to enlarge the House; Congress could vote tomorrow to triple or quadruple its membership. A 1,500-seat House would return the level of representation to where it stood a century ago — about 200,000 constituents per lawmaker. Obviously some technical adjustments would be needed — new district lines, more offices, smaller staffs — but the benefits would outweigh any inconvenience.
Once again, House members would be attuned to “the interests and circumstances” of their constituents. Smaller districts, compact and coherent, would be less susceptible to gerrymandering. One-on-one retail campaigning would grow in importance and costly mass advertising would subside. With smaller districts, races would grow more competitive. Congress would attract fewer careerists. More House members would expect to serve for only a few terms, not for life. And a House with more representatives would be more representative: Diversity in the truest sense would flourish, as more candidates from underrepresented racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and ideological groups would have a better chance to get elected.
Of course Congress is disliked: Larger legislative districts correlate with lower confidence in government. Capping the House at 435 has made it dismal and dysfunctional. We used to have a true “People’s House,” real, rambunctious, and responsive. Quadruple its ranks, and we can have one again.