It is inevitable that when the population grows the number of people represented by each congress person will increase. The question is: should there be a limit to the size of congressional districts?
From the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth century the average size of a district ranged from 200,000 to about 250,000. Today that number stands around 700,000. In the past, the size of districts grew but so did the number of districts. In 1911 Congress passed the Apportionment Act of 1911 which capped the number of representatives at 435. Why 435? Well, there is no good answer; it is a completely arbitrary number. This was done in 1911 when the population of the United States was 92 million. Today, the population of the US is about 308 million, and yet the number of representatives is still 435! This means that, statically, every person receives less representation in 2012 than in 1911.
“Compared with other established democracies, a 435-member House is decidedly on the cramped side. The British House of Commons, for instance, has 651 members who represent a population of about 60 million. The French National Assembly consists of 577 members for about 60 million people. Only the smaller countries of Europe, with populations well below 20 million, have national legislatures smaller than our House of Representatives.”¹
The constitution states that: “The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand.” (article 1, section 2, clause 3) This is very interesting because it raises the idea that the Apportionment Act of 1911, and perhaps Congress in general, may be in violation of the constitution. (The first Congress had a ratio of one for 62,000). As a result of this zero sum gain apportionment, when one state grows relative to another, that state gains representation while the other loses. This raises the question: why should a state like Ohio lose seats in congress just because a other states like Utah grow? The zero sum gain apportionment established in 1911 seems to be fundamentally unfair.
As the size of districts grow they become less representative, not only by the numbers but also in reality. It is much more difficult for a Representative to serve a larger district than a smaller one. As a result Congressmen and women hire large staffs to help them administer their responsibilities. In addition to becoming more difficult to actually stay in touch with, and represent 700,000+ people, super-sized districts have a negative impact on elections as well. To effectively run a campaign in incredibly large districts, a large amount of money and resources are needed. This puts pressure on Representatives to raise funds and prepare for the next campaign.
As the electoral districts become larger, candidates must raise greater sums of money in order to market themselves to hundreds of thousands of prospective voters. Therefore, in larger districts, the incumbents’ ability to thwart challengers improves due to the simple fact that the challengers must raise an extraordinary amount of money merely to have a possibility of victory.²
As a result Representatives often use their offices as a tool to get themselves re-elected. This constant fund raising and campaigning means we have a Congress that is very effective at getting themselves re-elected but very bad at actually governing. As a result the incumbency retention rate has increased. It is currently between 80-90%.
I know that most people’s eyes glazed over, and they clicked away as soon as I mentioned ‘apportionment,’ but I believe that this is a seriously important issue. How power is structured and who wields it, is arguably just as important as what power is being wielded for. Yet, no one really talks about it. I guess congressional apportionment is a hard issue to demagogue.
Some ideas about what can be done:
1. Congress could repeal the Apportionment Act of 1911. Although, I think that since this issue relates to the structure of government a constitutional amendment may be necessary.
2. A set limit should be set on the size of districts (this should not be too strict because it may need to be adjusted in the future).
3. The number of districts should be adjusted every ten years, after the census.
I think that we should start by doubling the size of the House of Representatives to 870, this would put the average district size at about 350,000. Then, as the population continues to grow the number of districts can increase again. Congress would become very large and somewhat cumbersome, however, the effects of an enlarged Congress can be mitigated by the use of technology. Is it really necessary that all members of Congress be able to fit into one building and have their own reserved seat? By creating a system where Representatives can stay in their districts and ‘telecommute’ we may also get the added benefit of reducing the influence of lobbyists.
The President represents the entire nation. The Senators represent the states. The Representatives represent the people. The House of Representatives was supposed to be the people’s house, the part of government that was closest to the people in order to represent and speak for the citizens. As the size of congressional districts increase our representation in government decreases. By increasing the number of and decreasing the size of districts the House can once again become more democratic and serve its intended purpose: to represent the people of the United States.
¹”America has outgrown the House of Representatives,” Matthew Cossolotto, in Commentaries and More Information on Increasing U.S. House Size, FairVote.org.
²”Taking Back Our Republic,” Thirty-Thousand.org.
“THE ENTRENCHING OF INCUMBENCY: REELECTIONS IN THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 1790-1994,” Stephen C. Erickson, CATO.org.