Symposium | What's Next? The New Progressive Agenda

Expand the House of Representatives

By Larry Sabato

Tagged Institutions

The Founders intended the House of Representatives, with its small districts and frequent elections, to be the pulse of American democracy. But today’s House often has no measurable pulse at all, its arteries clogged with special interest agendas and self-satisfied members. With guaranteed reelection in computer-drawn districts gerrymandered to further partisan interests, representatives often escape electoral accountability. Challengers are limited by the large size of the districts and their inability to raise enough campaign money. As a result, politics has become cartel-ized–not by Democrats or Republicans, but by incumbents and their affluent lobbying allies.

The Founders wanted House members to be closely bound to their constituencies. Bowing to George Washington’s objection that 40,000 constituents per member was insufficiently representative, the original 65 members represented 30,000 citizens each. It is easy to imagine Washington’s horror if he had known the average district in 2008 would contain close to 700,000 people. No wonder citizens agree in most polls that “no one is listening to me and my family”; they likely have never met their member of Congress. To change how politics is played, we must rewrite some basic rules–and more than double the size of the House of Representatives.

A larger, more representative House is not without precedent. European democracies almost across the board have more legislative members and better representation ratios. The average British MP in the 646-member House of Commons represents 91,000 people, and France’s 577-member assembly boasts a 1-to-102,000 legislator-to-constituent ratio.

Reverting to Washington’s 30,000 constituent standard would be impractical; it would mean a 10,000-member House. Indeed, James Madison recognized the need for some upper ceiling on the number of House members: “A certain number [of representatives] seems to be necessary to secure the benefits of free consultation and discussion…On the other hand, the number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude.” From Madison’s perspective, a 1,000-member House of Representatives, with about 300,000 constituents per representative, would seem reasonable.

A bigger House would require some additional expenditure, but legislative operations comprise a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Staff resources could be held constant, more or less, with costs divided by 1,000 instead of 435. The typical value of each vote would fall, strengthening a governing party’s capacity to pass legislation without buying members’ votes with pet projects. Lobbyists, who would gain little from targeting individual members, would focus on influencing public debates rather than brokering dubious backroom deals.

House expansion would bridge the divide between representatives and constituents. Smaller districts could more closely correspond with community boundaries and media markets. This would provide representation for local concerns and revive long-forgotten traditions of door-to-door retail campaigning. Challengers would need far less money to make their stand, relying on foot power more than a green machine fed by barrels of cash. With candidates making their cases individually to more voters, incumbency would matter somewhat less, and upsets would probably be more common. Diverse ethnic and racial minorities, beyond African Americans and Hispanics, would be able to win some representation.

House expansion will be practically impossible without a Constitutional amendment, something entrenched incumbents would loathe to pass. However, reform can bypass a recalcitrant Congress if two-thirds of state legislatures apply for an Article V Constitutional Convention. Upon ratification by three-quarters of the states, Convention resolutions become adopted Constitutional amendments. Although historically unprecedented and unlikely for the foreseeable future, a new Constitutional Convention is not as far-fetched as one might think. Twice in the past–in 1969 over the “one-person, one-vote” Supreme Court ruling and in 1983 over the balanced budget amendment–32 of the required 34 states applied for one.

The American public’s cynicism toward Congress cannot be diluted by tinkering around the margins. Constitutional reform is necessary to break the stranglehold that professional politicians and moneyed interests have on our government. But it’s no longer enough to throw out the incumbents–we first need to add more members to their ranks.

From the Symposium

What's Next? The New Progressive Agenda

For at least a decade, progressive thinking has been imprisoned. The fighting faith of the twentieth century has been paralyzed by the need to protect its past achievements and by a divided political landscape that has left it capable of...


Cap and Lease Carbon

By John Irons


See All

Read more about Institutions

Larry Sabato is director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and the author of A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America A Fairer Country.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus