Credit: Amy Swan

The First Amendment wasn’t supposed to be the first amendment. 

It’s mostly forgotten today, but Congress originally sent twelve of James Madison’s proposed constitutional amendments to the states for ratification; the ten that were ratified are what we now call the Bill of Rights. If all twelve had gotten through, the U.S. House of Representatives today might be at about 6,000 members, instead of 435.

That’s because Madison’s original first amendment specified a precise formula for representation. Initially, each House member would represent 30,000 people. For the first Congress, this meant just sixty-five members. Then, when the House got to 100 members, the ratio would go to 40,000 to one. When it got to 200 members, the ratio would go to 50,000 to one. That was as far as it got.

“It is a sound and important principle that the representative ought to be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of his constituents,” Madison wrote in Federalist 56. As the new nation’s population grew, then, the “People’s House” should stay close to the people. But Madison’s forward-looking amendment was always at least one state short of the three-quarters needed for ratification.

Still, for the next 120 years, Congress generally acted in accordance with the spirit of the lost first amendment. While the number of senators remained constitutionally fixed at two per state, Congress passed decennial legislation to increase the size of the House following each census. By 1832, it had grown to 240 members. After some stasis in the mid-nineteenth century (Congress was preoccupied with other things then), the House grew consistently in the post–Civil War era, rising to 433 after the 1910 census. The 1912 admission to the union of Arizona and New Mexico, which as states were constitutionally entitled to at least one representative, brought the number to 435, with one representative for every 211,000 constituents. 

But even as Congress passed the Apportionment Act of 1911, rumblings about a too-big House were growing. And so was the nation: between the 1910 and 1920 censuses, the population swelled by 15 percent, from 92 million to 106 million. Much of that growth came in the form of immigration to cities like New York and Chicago. To keep the ratio at 211,000 to one would have meant adding another seventy representatives. The House couldn’t agree on a plan, with representatives from less populous, rural states fearing a dilution of their power. So, for the first time following a census, it didn’t reapportion at all. 

The debate continued through the 1920s. “Why is this number 435 sacred?” asked Ralph Lozier, a third-term Missouri Democratic congressman, in 1928. “There is absolutely no reason, philosophy, or common sense in arbitrarily fixing the membership of the House at 435 or at any other number.” 

But in 1929, Congress did just that, voting to cap the number of representatives at 435, and reapportion among states based on their fluctuating share of the national population. The case for keeping districts small lost out to the need for consensus on reapportionment—and to the argument that a larger House would descend into chaos. As Wallace White, a Maine Republican, put it, “If the efficiency of the House as a parliamentary body is of first importance, then we must concede that the House may be of such size that it will become less orderly and that its effectiveness as a deliberative, legislative body will be impaired.” 

But if keeping the House at 435 members was supposed to make it more effective, deliberative, and orderly, the cap has been a dismal failure. Eight decades later, it’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional institution. Real debate is a thing of the past. All authority runs through party leadership. Members spend half their time fundraising, and too often put the interests of donors and lobbyists ahead of those of their constituents, whom many now refuse to meet face-to-face. Not coincidentally, economic inequality continues to rise, and faith in government continues to decline.

In short, history seems to have proved James Madison right. 

The good news is that the 435 number is not set in stone; Congress could expand the House through simple legislation, as it used to every decade. Doing so might be the most effective way to make the House function as a real representative body again. Radically expanding the House could, in one stroke, address some of the biggest problems facing Congress and, by extension, the country. Smaller districts would give voters more access to members and ease the pressure to fundraise. They would provide more representation for the poor and lead to a more diverse and representative body. And adding members would fracture party leadership to the point where the House would have to work in a decentralized way, leading to more deliberation in committees and more fluid coalitions—just as the institution was designed to work.

After the 2020 census, the official U.S. population will likely be around 333 million people. That means that the average U.S. House member will represent about 765,000 constituents. That’s a lot of people—comparable to the population of major cities like Seattle and Denver.

Look across the globe, and you’ll see that the United States is an outlier. In the United Kingdom (population 66 million), the House of Commons has 650 members, one for every 101,000 Brits. Germany’s Bundestag has 709 members, one for every 116,000 Germans. Only India (population 1.3 billion) has more constituents per representative in its lower house, the Lok Sabha. But in India, individual state governments have more autonomy than in the U.S., making the national legislature less important.

Political scientists have documented two serious consequences to overly large districts: lower trust and higher inequality. The first is intuitive: the more constituents, the less likely it is that citizens will have direct contact with their representatives. If representatives feel distant and unhelpful, so will government. Across democracies, there is a correlation: the larger a nation’s districts, the less overall confidence its citizens have in government.

The political scientist Brian Frederick has shed light on the phenomenon by exploiting some natural variation in the size of U.S. congressional districts. (Since states vary in population, it’s impossible to get equal-sized districts across all states. For example, Montana has one representative for 1.05 million people; Rhode Island has two representatives for 1.06 million people.) Frederick found that as districts get bigger in population, constituents are less likely to report having contact with their member of Congress, less likely to think their member would help solve their problems, and more likely to see their member as out of touch with the district. In short, having so few representatives for so many constituents contributes to widespread dissatisfaction with Congress. 

That dissatisfaction may be at a crisis point. In a recent poll, only 11 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress, putting it at the bottom of a list of fifteen public and private national institutions. 

The second major consequence of overly large districts is less obvious, but even more significant: there is an extremely strong correlation between constituent-to-representative ratios and inequality. 

Why would this be? One consequence of House districts being so big is that they are more heterogeneous. This means that there are few districts where poor voters add up as a pivotal voting bloc. The political scientist Karen Long Jusko estimates that even if the poorest 33 percent of Americans voted as a unified bloc, they could still only elect their preferred representative in 5 percent of districts. In France, by contrast, a third of the districts have a low-income majority. “[T]he size of a U.S. congressional district is much larger—by a factor of almost seven—than the average French district,” Jusko notes. “This undoubtedly contributes to the heterogeneity of American congressional districts, and dilutes the electoral power of low-income voters.” Meanwhile, she finds a consistent pattern: the more electoral power poor voters have across countries (and across U.S. states), the higher the level of government social spending. 

There’s no magic formula for the exact perfect size of a legislature. But bringing the House back to the ratio that stood in 1911—211,000 constituents to one representative—would be a good start. It would still put the U.S. toward the upper end of the thirty-six countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development, but we would no longer be a major outlier. To get there, in a nation of 333 million people, the 2021 House would need about 1,600 members. Bringing the House up to that level would likely go a long way toward reducing inequality and could restore much-needed trust in government. It would also have several other major benefits.

For one, expanding the House would strike a more powerful blow against the influence of money in politics than any past campaign finance regulation, simply by cutting down on the costs of campaigning—reducing the candidate demand instead of trying to cut off the supply. With one representative for 200,000 people, it’s much more feasible to run a grassroots, door-to-door campaign than when you’re trying to represent 765,000 people. It’s true that more campaigns could mean more money spent on House races overall, but the average cost would drop dramatically, giving less-deep-pocketed candidates a better chance. And it would mean that individual members, once in office, could spend more time with their constituents and less time hanging out with lobbyists and rich donors. 

Another benefit would be added diversity. Today’s House is 80 percent male, and 80 percent white, with an average age of fifty-seven. Adding 1,165 new members would be a quick way to make the legislature look a lot more like the country it represents. 

Finally, perhaps the best reason to increase the size of the House is that it would open the door to another potentially transformational electoral reform: putting in place a form of semi-proportional representation that would allow for a multiparty system.

This idea—which House Democrat Don Beyer, of Virginia, has introduced in a bill called the Fair Representation Act—would implement multimember districts and ranked-choice voting, a system already used successfully in Ireland and Australia. The new districts would still be large, but with three to five candidates emerging, each would only need to win over a subset of voters. If the Irish example is a guide, individual candidates would run stronger in different parts of the district, serving different but overlapping constituencies, keeping representatives closer to voters. 

If keeping the House at 435 members was supposed to make it more effective, deliberative, and orderly, the cap has been a dismal failure. The good news is that the 435 number is not set in stone; Congress could expand the House through simple legislation, as it used to every decade.

The big advantage of Beyer’s proposed reform is that it would defuse the zero-sum partisanship that is currently paralyzing Congress. Moving away from winner-take-all elections would allow new parties to emerge, which would in turn force coalition building and compromise. The result would be a more committee-based Congress, where more bills come to the floor—not just those that party leaders think improve their ability to win partisan control—and more business actually gets done.

So why not do it? The simplest case against increasing the size of the House is the same one Wallace White made in the 1920s: a bigger House would just be too big. It would be too hard for members to deliberate, discuss, and debate. They couldn’t get to know each other as people. It would be a mere voting assembly, in which leaders dictate how members vote, and everybody else is a backbencher.

The thing about this critique is that it perfectly describes the current House. In today’s House of 435, there is no deliberation. Members give speeches to an empty chamber. They are talking to the cameras, beaming out their message on C-SPAN and perhaps later in YouTube clips. Whatever idealized deliberation and bonhomie might be lost with a larger House is already long gone, and it isn’t coming back. Even the Senate, with a more manageable 100 members, is hardly a model of reasoned debate and thoughtful persuasion, though it comes closer.

Yes, perhaps a House so large and so close to the people would get more unruly or more populist. But that was the original plan, and it’s why there’s also a Senate. Sure, we’d have to build new office buildings, and create a separate space where all 1,600 members could sit together if need be. But that’s a small price to play for a more representative and responsive legislature.

Even if you’re convinced on the merits of this proposal, you might still dismiss it as pie in the sky. Why would any current members—the ones who would have to vote on it—support such a proposal? Being one of 435 sounds better than being one of 1,600. Why would members vote to dilute what little influence they have?

The status quo may be the devil Congress knows, but it’s one hell of a devil. That a near-record number of House members are retiring this year, most in perfectly safe districts, is the surest sign that even the prestige is no longer worth it. 

Making the House larger could, paradoxically, make the job a lot more appealing. That’s because members would almost surely have to spend less time fundraising, which is widely acknowledged to be the most miserable part of being in Congress. Expanding the House would pair especially well with a proposal to create a public matching system for small donors, in which candidates get six public dollars in campaign money for every one dollar they raise privately. Maryland Representative John Sarbanes has developed legislation to put this system in place, and it’s now a part of the Democrats’ Better Deal for Democracy platform.

Expanding the House would strike a more powerful blow against the influence of money in politics than any past campaign finance regulation, simply by cutting down on the costs of campaigning—reducing the candidate demand instead of trying to cut off the supply.

In a more decentralized, committee-based House, members would have more opportunities to work in smaller groups to develop real legislative solutions, rather than just serve as partisan foot soldiers. And if the House were more productive and more responsive to the concerns of constituents, being a member might feel more important and even more prestigious—like being part of a great institution, not just the butt of jokes about being as popular as head lice.

Still, if Congress doesn’t act, the states could. Madison’s original second amendment provided that if representatives and senators voted to increase their pay, the raise wouldn’t kick in until the next Congress. That idea lay fallow for almost 200 years, until a college sophomore in Texas rediscovered it and started a campaign to ratify it. In 1992, Michigan became the thirty-eighth state to ratify, making the “salary grab” rule the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, restricting pay raises for members of Congress is an easier sell to voters than creating more members. But at the same time, creating more than a thousand job openings in Washington might appeal to quite a few ambitious state legislators.

There may be more direct solutions to each of the problems—inequality, campaign finance, the lack of real deliberation, and so on—that flow from having a too-small House. But there are structural reasons why direct solutions have failed. Individual politicians operate inside of institutions, and those institutions create incentives and pressures. Expecting a different outcome with the same incentives in the same organization is a recipe for failure. Change the organization and the incentives, however, and you might actually get a different result. Make it harder for members of Congress to avoid their constituents, make them less reliant on large donors, and weaken the grip of party leaders, and a more responsive, equitable government that can win back the trust of the people becomes much more likely.

In the bizarro universe in which the states had ratified all twelve of Madison’s proposed amendments, freedom of speech would be enshrined by the Third Amendment and congressional district size would have been capped at a maximum of 50,000 constituents per representative. Would the House now be at 6,000 members? Maybe. Would Congress have amended the amendment to slow the growth? Quite possibly. But at the very least, we probably would have seen a multiparty system develop in the late nineteenth century, as two parties would have been inadequate to organize the diversity of representation in a chamber with well over 1,000 members. And we very likely would have had a more populist House, in a good sense—one more attuned to the economic concerns of the people and with more incentive to cater to the demands of less privileged minority voting blocs. Instead, we’re left with the accident of history that survived, and the arbitrary number of 435 that stuck when the House started to seem too big and too skewed toward immigrant-heavy cities. 

Any increase to the House—to 700, to 1,600, to 6,000—would be a major change. But it would make our lower chamber far more representative and more responsive. And it might be just the disruption we need to fix our unsustainably polarized national politics and restore the original vision of the lower chamber: an unruly, chaotic place, close to the people, and capable of acts of unexpected creativity.

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the New America Political Reform program and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.