James Madison in particular worried that representatives would have too many people to look after. Overpopulate the House districts, he cautioned, and members “would not possess enough of the confidence of the people, and would be too sparsely taken from the people, to bring with them all the local information which would be frequently wanted.” To preserve the House’s direct link to the public, he proposed a constitutional amendment capping the size of each district at 50,000 members.
Had Madison’s amendment been adopted, America would today have approximately 6,500 lawmakers. In fairness, that might be a bit unwieldy. But there’s no reason Americans should be capped at our current 435 representatives. Up until 1910, when Congress conducted its constitutionally required reapportionment of the House after each census, it also adjusted the size of the chamber, in all but one case increasing the total number of seats. As a result, while the number of Americans-per-representative went up in the 120 years since Madison’s proposed amendment, that growth was fairly steady and slow. During the 1918 flu pandemic, each member of Congress had approximately 240,000 constituents.
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But in 1920, Americans were flocking to cities, and rural lawmakers from both parties, unwilling to cede more seats to fast-growing urban centers, refused to do their constitutional duty and reapportion House seats among states. As a side effect of their intransigence, the House remained stuck at 435 members. In 1929, as the next census approached, representatives had gone 19 years without expanding the lower chamber, and were no longer interested in diluting their own power. Rather than expand the House, they passed a law permanently capping the number of seats at 435, which would be reapportioned among the states after each census.
The result of this power grab would have poor James Madison turning in his grave. In the 90 years since the cap was put in place, the number of House seats has stayed flat while the population has boomed. To put it slightly differently, each member of Congress has become responsible for several times more constituents. District populations have doubled since my parents were born, in the late 1950s. In my own 33-year lifetime, the number of Americans per lawmaker has increased by about 200,000—the equivalent of adding a Salt Lake City to every district in the United States.
Only one country, India, with its 1.4 billion people, has legislative districts more populous than ours. In the country with the next-largest districts, Japan, each member of the lower house represents approximately one-third as many constituents as a U.S. representative. In the United Kingdom, the average constituents-per-lawmaker is even lower, less than one-seventh the number in the United States. The main reason America has such massive districts is not because it’s the best way to run a country. It’s because a bunch of lawmakers refused to yield power a century ago.