When the Founders convened the United States Congress for the first time in 1789, each House member represented an average of 33,000 citizens.
Today, each House member represents an average of 760,000 citizens. Alabama’s seven representatives represent approximately 5 million people.
This may be our Republic’s most radical — and consequential — departure from the Founding.
The Founders’ design for proportional representation
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the issue of proportional representation was so contentious that it was the only matter on which George Washington provided an opinion. Presiding over the convention, Washington objected to the initial proposal of 40,000 citizens per representative, suggesting the number ought to be 30,000.
Many of the Founders were skeptical of the initial ratio as well. How could a mere 65 members of the House effectively represent 3.9 million people? James Madison summed up these concerns in Federalist No. 55:
"First, that so small a number of representatives will be an unsafe depositary of the public interests; secondly, that they will not possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents; thirdly, that they will be taken from that class of citizens which will sympathize least with the feelings of the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at a permanent elevation of the few on the depression of the many; fourthly, that defective as the number will be in the first instance, it will be more and more disproportionate, by the increase of the people, and the obstacles which will prevent a correspondent increase of the representatives."
Madison assuaged these concerns by emphasizing that 65 members were a sufficient number for the new federal government’s limited purposes, that the number of members would increase in proportion with the population of the country, and that a larger proportion would not necessarily lead to more effective governance. The Federalist arguments won the day.
In 1792, Congress passed the first Apportionment Act to determine the number of House members according to the first census, setting the number at 105 representatives. The bill’s initial passage included Alexander Hamilton’s “largest remainder method,” providing for an additional representative for the eight states that had the largest populations after dividing by 30,000. Siding with Thomas Jefferson, Washington issued the first-ever presidential veto against Hamilton’s version of the law, ensuring that the proportion was equal between all states. The law was revised, setting the ratio to one representative for every 33,000 citizens in every state.
How we got to one representative for every 760,000 citizens
Congress continued to adjust the House according to census results every 10 years, expanding the number of representatives as the country’s population grew. The proportion stayed within the Founders’ contemplated range until the mid-19th century when the ratio began inching over 50,000 citizens per representative.
Congress added more seats to the House in smaller ratios up until the Apportionment Act of 1911 when Congress set the seats to 435. Following the 1920 census, Congress failed to reapportion House membership as required under the Constitution for political and circumstantial reasons. Had Congress reapportioned in 1921, the total number of House seats would have reached 483.
Congress finally passed the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, capping the House of Representatives to 435 seats where it has remained for over 100 years.
Another ‘lost’ constitutional amendment
Allowing the House of Representatives to become less and less representative as the population grows is a silent contributor to significant issues in this country.
There are wide disparities in the average sizes of the districts by state. Delaware and Montana, for example, despite being the 45th and 46th smallest states by population, have both the largest average district size – about 990,000 people per representative for Delaware — and smallest average district size — about 552,000 people per representative for Montana. Here in Alabama, a costly litigation fight is underway because we are forced to quarrel over a meager seven House seats supposed to represent 5,000,000 people. The Founders would balk at such disproportionate ratios.
Madison recognized the validity of the Anti-Federalist argument of the House of Representatives becoming disproportionate by including an amendment in his original proposed Bill of Rights that provided a formula for the House to grow in proportion with the population.
The Congressional Apportionment Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by 11 states but remained just shy of adoption as more states joined the union. Like the 27th Amendment, which was also in Madison’s initial proposal, but only ratified in 1992, Congress did not set a time limit for ratification.
If 27 more states ratified, the Congressional Apportionment Amendment would become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.
While a literal reading of the amendment would call for an approximately 6,000-member House of Representatives, given Madison’s own beliefs regarding the inefficiency of too large a House, it seems possible that the language was intended to function as a formulaic example. Thus, under the amendment, once 300 representatives were reached, the ratio would increase to 60,000 citizens for each new seat until reaching 400; 70,000 until reaching 500; and so on.
Following this formula, we would have approximately 1,700 House of Representative seats today, or one representative for every 200,000 citizens on average.
But would it be any more inefficient than the current system – a system maintaining the power and control of the establishment by a two-party duopoly, career politicians unconstrained by term limits, forced racial gerrymandering, and a Congress alienated from its constituents?
This citizen submits not. The Founders intended the House of Representatives to be the “People’s House.” But today, as the People number 330,000,000, the 435-seat House’s foundation is more strained than ever – its blueprint forgotten.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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