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Should we expand the House of Representatives? The Founders thought so

Kevin Kosar
The Hill

Are you one of the 77 percent of Americans who disapprove of the job Congress is doing? Well, some very smart people have a solution for you: We need to add more politicians to Washington.

Funny, right? But once you finish snickering and actually think hard about the idea, it does not sound so crazy. Most fundamentally, this reform could address a common American gripe: Congress is out of touch and does not hear what the average voter is saying.

The case for a larger House of Representatives was most recently made in a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. It points out that the Founding Fathers designed the House of Representatives to be “the people’s house.” In contrast to the more patrician Senate, whose members were selected by state legislators for six-year terms, the House’s occupants were to be picked by voters, who could decide their fate every two years.

Additionally, the crafters of the Constitution expected the size of the House to grow as the U.S. population increased. James Madison was particularly keen on this point and wanted the Constitution to carry a provision that mandated the number of constituents per representative, which would have automatically increased the size of the House with each Census.

As a matter of practice, however, the Founders assigned Congress the job of increasing the House’s membership. Which it did regularly between 1790 and 1910, growing the body from 105 to 435. Along the way, the average number of voters per representative expanded substantially. In 1790, the typical House member answered to 34,436 individuals. By 1910, that number was 210,583.  

Today, there are more than 330 million Americans, which makes for 761,000 persons for each representative. That is an immense number, one that has the Founders turning in their graves and dwarves the average number in representative democracies around the world. Germany’s 84 million citizens are represented by 709 legislators in its lower chamber, for instance.

Capping the number of representatives at 435 clearly has come with costs, although you may not readily notice them. As a voter, your voice in Washington has been diminished. Once upon a time, the average American visiting Washington could drop into the office of the legislator whose salary he pays and speak his mind. Today, even with town hall meetings and other outreach efforts, few Americans will ever meet the very individuals who are supposed to stand up for them.

Additionally, if you are having trouble with an executive branch agency — say, your recently discharged brother is not getting his veterans’ benefits — well, you will need to get in a long line for help from your congressman. And it is highly unlikely the member himself will see your complaint. You are one of 760,000 who may have a beef with a bureaucracy, so your plea will go to a staffer who will add it to the stack.

And speaking of bureaucracy, our legislators are supposed to watch over tax dollars to ensure they are not wasted on boondoggles or handed over to grifters and bums. But how are 435 members of the House supposed to oversee 180 federal agencies and more than $6.8 trillion in spending? When Congress capped itself in 1910, there were fewer than a dozen executive branch agencies and a budget of about $6.4 billion.

Not to be forgotten is that the 435-member cap means that every 10 years reapportionment takes representatives away from some states. The 2020 reapportionment took a legislator away from Ohio, California, and five other states. Voters will be less well-heard than they were.

So, what is to be done? The authors of the report candidly recognize that there is only so much that can be done to reduce the ratio. Getting America back to one representative for every 30,000 or even 50,000 constituents would produce a freakishly huge House along the lines of the Galactic Senate in Star Wars.

The authors settle on growing the people’s house by 150 members, to 585. This would improve representation by 26 percent. But they caution that much thought needs to be given to the electoral mechanisms that would choose these new members. Having another 75 fire-breathing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) and 75 Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) will not make Congress great again. Reformers also will need to think of ways to rearrange the committees and internal structures of the House to ensure that new members will be empowered to get things done on behalf of their constituents.

On the whole, expanding the House is an intriguing proposition. It cannot be dismissed as a radical notion, seeing as the Founders favored it and it was standard practice for much of the nation’s history. Let the debate on Capitol Hill and America begin!

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of "Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform" (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

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Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu