Library of Congress / The Atlantic

Desperate for information on the state of nearby hospitals, requirements for small-business loans, or even just the nearest source of hand sanitizer, Americans are calling Congress as never before—and, more often than not, they can’t get through. It’s not for lack of trying. Across the country, representatives and their staff are working feverishly to reply to calls and emails. But with the country in crisis, members of Congress literally cannot adequately respond to their constituents. And for good reason: On average, each of them represents 740,000 people.

How could this happen? The answer lies in a quirk of American government long thought to be a matter of political theory, but one that, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, has become a matter of life and death. The House of Representatives is way too small.  

When the First Congress convened, in 1789, it had 65 members, each one representing an average of approximately 60,000 people. (Many of those people—700,000 overall—were enslaved, which is to say they weren’t represented in any meaningful sense.) Even such relatively small districts were considered bulky. At the dawn of American history, one of the most common concerns with the new Constitution had nothing to do with the Electoral College or presidential power. Instead, the founding generation fretted that the House districts were too populous.

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.

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.

As is clear in the COVID-19 crisis, Americans still rely on their representatives to be their most direct connection to the federal government. That connection grows more tenuous each year. No less distressing, the staff of each member’s office has been capped at the same number—just 18—since the 1970s. Imagine a business serving 50 percent more customers without hiring a single new employee. That’s the situation faced by nearly every single member of Congress today.

At some point, hopefully soon, the curve will flatten, the pandemic will abate, and the daily flood of worried calls will stop. But the underlying problem with American democracy exposed by the crisis—a House of Representatives that is not representative enough—will remain.

America doesn’t need a 6,500-person House to get this right. In a world where people and information move much faster than they used to, surely representatives can adequately represent more people than before. But it’s long past time to expand the House—both the number of members, and the numbers of staff.

If lawmakers increase the size of the House, they will need to act carefully. They will have to ensure that new, smaller districts aren’t easier to gerrymander. They will have to build more office space, and hire more staff. But if the United States could protect the integrity of the mapmaking process, and deal with some very manageable administrative concerns, there’s no reason the House couldn’t accommodate two or even three times as many members as it has today. In fact, even a triple-size Congress would still have more constituents per representative than any other country’s lower house except for India and Japan.

A larger House wouldn’t have stopped the pandemic. It wouldn’t prevent every death, or make sure that every small business who needed a loan could get one. But a larger House would be far more responsive to the needs of individual constituents. It would help restore public trust in government, and allow members to consider the specific local needs of their districts, just as America’s Founders intended. Above all else, a larger House would give the country confidence that it can meet the most basic requirement of a democracy: When the people call, their representatives should answer.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

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