A Return to the Founder’s House of Representatives

Congress is a mess and we all know it. Much of the blame for the vast bureaucratic “swamp” in Washington falls on Congress. What no one agrees on is whether Congress can be fixed. If an attempt was made to fix it, how could it be done? Our Founders designed Congress and tampering with what they did could make things worse. 

Oh, but hold on. Congress already tampered with the Founders intent. 

“The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative…” The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2

Almost a 100 years ago the Congress capped the number of Representatives at 435. In the years since, Congress has become increasingly separated from the people it is supposed to represent. Currently the average Member of the House represents over 700,000 people. How can we continue to call the House of Representatives the “people’s house” when most members represent a gerrymandered district the size of a large city? We are no more in touch with our representatives than we are with our governors or senators.

Congress may not have violated the Constitution when it capped the House at 435, but they did violate the intent of the Constitution. When the Constitution was signed communication was much more difficult than now. One might even argue that keeping the pulse of 700,0000 people now is no more difficult than it was to keep up with 30,000 people back then, but clearly it is not. 30,000 people is like a nice size town where a large portion of the people know the candidates, or someone who knows the candidates. 700,000 people is like a large city where only a small portion of the population has any kind of personal connection to candidates. The problem then and now is not with having one Representative for 30,000 people. 30,000 is a reasonable number. The problem when the law was passed was the large number of Representatives that would result if the number of Representatives was not capped. The population of the US in 1929 when the law was passed was over 122 million meaning that if there was to be one Representative per 30,000 inhabitants then there would be over 4,000 Representatives. In 1929 there were no viable alternatives to meeting and voting in person and no practical way to have 4,000 people in a meeting.

Today, if each member of the House represented 30,000 people, the House would have over 10,000 members. California would have around 1200 while Wyoming would have about 20. Today, these numbers are manageable. Modern technology makes it possible to have a virtually unlimited number of Representatives. Using secure technology virtual meetings could be easily held, documents could be distributed rapidly, and voting could be done through a secure system. The members would live in their districts with virtually no staff, except for the Speaker and other leaders. Currently the House apparently has somewhere over 10,000 employees. The effect of this change would be to flip the member and staff numbers. Instead of 435 members and over 10,000 staffers, the House would consist of over 10,000 members who would be in close contact with the people they represent, as the Founder’s intended. Members could work from their home office, or from an office in their district. 10,000 staffers would no longer be needed since the districts would so much more manageable in size. Clearly the focus of House members would be on their districts since that is where they would live and work. The cost of this larger House could be less than the cost of the current House, and the House would be much more responsive to the public as intended by the Founders. While all Bills would be voted on by all members, each party in each State delegation could elect party leaders to attend events like the State of the Union Address, and to represent the State on Committees.

Making this change to the House would have some other benefits. The influence of lobbyists would decrease, and not just because it would be more expensive to corrupt a majority of the House, but also because the Members would be closer to their voters than to the lobbyists and bureaucrats who have such good access now. Gerrymandering is a very unfortunate result of limiting the number of Representatives. Many of the current districts are very strangely drawn and bare no relation to neighborhood, municipal, or county boundaries. Smaller blocks of people would be much harder to gerrymander into odd shapes, and more likely to be made up of people who see themselves as part of a community. 

Many logistical and procedural issues would have to be worked out. Three issues could be more serious problems. This change to 30,000 inhabitants to one Representative would end up benefiting large States, and might be opposed by small states. The second potential problematic issue is the public reaction. The change might not be viewed favorably for many reasons, one being how the media would spin the change. The third problematic issue would be opposition from current House members since most of them would have less clout. Continuing the status quo (435 members) does not improve Congress or reduce the power of the “swamp”. Some aspects of the 10,000+ member solution outlined above may require compromise. The goal should be to create a House that is more accountable to its members, does not hurt small states, slashes the need for so many staffers, is more efficient, cuts back on lobbying, discourages gerrymandering by its design, and is manageable. 

Year after year the Congress receives very low approval ratings from the public, and the “swamp” thrives, and yet year after year nothing changes. Making the House larger will increase citizen influence and participation. The change will make the House more accountable to the voters, will reduce costs, reduce the influence of lobbyists, and will reduce gerrymandering. Using the technology we have now enables us to make the House the “people’s house” as the Founders intended. 

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