The House of Representatives the chamber of Congress that is supposed to represent the American people – no longer represents most Americans.
The House is neither larger enough, nor diverse enough, to adequately represent modern America, data from the Pew Research Center indicates. The same data indicates that the House fails in performing its constitutionally-mandated job of representing the American people.
Some of the ways that the House fails to represent the American people include:
- The House has just 485 members to represent a national population of 326.767 million people.
- That leaves Americans under represented when compared to citizens of some foreign democracies. The British parliament has 650 members to represent 66.573 million people. Germany’s Bundestag has 709 members to represent 82.293 million people.
- There is one Representative for every 747,000 Americans, Pew calculated. In contrast there is one member of the Diet for every 272,108 Japanese voters, and one member of parliament (MP) for every 164,468 Australians.
- To be fair, Americans are about as well represented as Indians. There are around 545 members of the lower house of the Indian parliament; or House of the People, for 1.343 billion people. That works out to one MP for every 2.46 million Indians.
- The House of Representatives is about the same size it was during the administration of President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) in 1909-1913. The House had about 433 members then and 435 members today.
- The House has not grown significantly since before World War I even though the US population has more than tripled since then. The United States had a population of 97.225 million in Taft’s year in the White House 1913, and a population of 99.111 million in 1914 the first year of the Great War.
- Under the present rules governing the House, some Americans are more equal than others. A representative from Rhode Island represents 530,000 people, while a representative from Montana represents 1.05 million people.
- Montana gets less representation in the House in most states because its population is just under the limit for dividing districts.
- The average California Representative stands for 750,566 people. California has 53 representatives for 39.79 million people.
- Congress does not look like America. Just 15% of members of the 114th Congress were members of racial or minority group, Pew Research reported. Around 31% of the nation’s population is nonwhite or minority.
- The composition of the house makes campaigns far more expensive in some areas. The only travel expenses a House candidate in Rhode Island needs is gas money, a candidate in Wyoming, Alaska, or Montana will have to spend a fortune on air travel and hotel rooms. A candidate in Rhode Island needs to buy airtime in just one TV market. A House candidate in Montana might need to buy ads in a half dozen TV markets.
Why the House of Representatives Does not represent the American People
The House fails to represent America because of a 1929 law that caps its membership at 435. The law was passed to keep urban dwellers in a few states from getting control of Congress.
Race and religion played a role in that decision. Southern Democrats were afraid of a large number of house seats falling into the hands of Northern blacks who were Republicans.
It is no coincidence that the law was passed right after U.S. Rep Oliver De Preist (R-Illinois) became the first African American elected to the House from a Northern State in 1928. White protestant members were also afraid that largely Catholic ethnic voters from cities like New York and Chicago would be in a position to dominate the House.
Disturbingly, this situation still stands, and deprives Americans of representation. To be fair allowing the House expand as dramatically it did for the first 14 decades of the Republic, might create a legislative body too large to govern. Our friends at Pew calculated that the House would have 1,156 members if it gave Americans the same of level of representation Germans enjoy from the Bundestag.
Still it is obvious that large numbers of Americans ranging from African Americans; to Latinos, to Montana ranchers and many other rural whites are not receiving adequate representation in the House. There is room for a Constitutional challenge to the limits on House members.
Today’s strict constructionist Supreme Court is likely to rule that the House has to grow to represent America leading to a new political crisis. Strict constructionists believe today’s government must follow the intent of the Founding Fathers in its actions.
How can the House be Made More Representative?
Making the House more representative will involve a major political battle. Groups that benefit from the existing order; such as lobbyists, rural whites, agricultural interests, miners, and Republicans, will fight hard to preserve it.
There are options for expanding the House, all of which are likely to be unpopular and painful. Some ways to make the House more representative include:
- Straight expansion. Go back to a rate of expansion like that experienced before 1929. The problem here is that the size of the House might triple or quadruple almost overnight. That would lead to all manner of logistical problems and change the nature of American politics completely. It would probably lead to a system in which rural areas get no representation, which sounds like a recipe for civil unrest and violence.
- The Wyoming rule. Make all districts roughly the population of the smallest state Wyoming (population 579,315). This would give smaller states more representation, but benefit bigger states like California even more. The long term result would be to expand the House by 200 members to around 600 members but preserve most of the current inequalities.
- Million person districts. Have each district represent one million people. States with populations of under one million would get one representatives. The advantage to this there would be a smaller house with around 330 members that might be more manageable. The drawback would be to make campaigning more expensive.
- In such a system states with between one and two million persons be rounded up to two million inhabitants to ensure more representation.
- Proportional representation. Under our current system, only the party with the most votes represents a district. The problem with this is that minority groups like rural whites and African Americans often get no representation.
- Under a proportional representation system, the candidates with the two or three large percentages of the votes get seats. An advantage to this system is that minority groups get representation. Another is more ideological balance. For example Republicans in California or Democrats in Kansas might get representation they have none under the current system.
- Proportional representation would also eliminate the biggest motivation for gerrymandering: fear. Groups like rural whites and African Americans gerrymander because they fear it is the only way they can have some political power and influence in America.
My suggestion would be to go to million person districts with proportional representation. Each district would consist of one million members or one state whichever is larger, and there would be two proportionally elected members from each district.
That would give America a House of around 660 representatives which would be a manageable size. The new House would be far from perfect, but it would be more representative of the country than the current gerrymandered system.