Of late, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the U.S. Senate. I would like to take a moment to talk about the U.S. House of Representatives.
When the Constitution was ratified, Article One, Section Two stated (and continues to state) that “the Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.”
Let’s stay with that figure for a moment, understanding that it represents the high-water mark for representation. Applying the same formula in 2017, with a United States population of 325.7 million, we would have a lower federal legislative body consisting of 10,856 souls. Elephantine? Perhaps. But currently, courtesy of the Reapportionment Act of 1929, we are capped at 435 House members. For a Republic as large as ours, that ceiling is too low; the fact that that number of seats has remained unchanged since Herbert Hoover was President and Babe Ruth patrolled the Yankees outfield is nothing less than scandalous.
Far too much political power in our country is exercised by far too few. This problem is exacerbated by limiting the number of Representatives that we can send to Congress. We are a growing nation. Individual house districts are jam-packed with constituents. Following the 2010 census, the average U.S. Congressional district was comprised of 710,767 individuals. That was 8 years ago. How can Ken or Kendra Average ensure that their voice is heard by their Representative with so many competing voices (people and organizations, both within and outside of their district)? What kind of access do they have? With so many constituents and interests, how can most Members of Congress truly keep up with all corners of their district? (hint: staff)
When you bear in mind that many districts are geographically sprawling and/or heavily gerrymandered, it is considerably more difficult to maintain a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The sheer size of these districts often necessitates campaigns that feature air wars (television commercials, most notably) since candidates can only knock on so many doors. This helps drive up campaign costs, which makes many candidates for the House heavily reliant on well-heeled interests to fill up their coffers. Again, should it need repeating, the nexus of political and economic clout is not healthy in a democracy.
Surely we can take steps to make the House of Representatives more representative of the electorate they are supposed to serve. Smaller districts that promote a closer connection between the public and their federal elected officials would help. For example, in the United Kingdom, the House of Commons consists of 650 Members of Parliament (representing a population of 65.64 million in 2016). That works out to a more manageable 100,984 residents per parliamentary constituency. In terms of total area, there are 11 states that are larger than all of the U.K. Adding another 215 U.S. Representatives to reach 650 in that house is well within our nation’s capacity. The additions could even be phased in over time. We have seen notable jumps in the number of U.S. Representatives before: a 24 seat increase in 1893 (from 1891), a 29 seat increase in 1901 (from 1893), and a 44 seat increase in 1913 (from 1911).
Yes, I know these structural considerations aren’t digital page-turners, yet they go to the heart of who we elect to represent us and how self-government can be improved. We are long over-due for an updated Reapportionment Act that disaggregates political power, taking some away from the few so the many can have a greater say in public policy decision-making.