The American system of democracy is all about voting for representatives who, once elected, go on to represent the interests of their constituents in Washington (in theory, at least).
But how many individuals can one person actually represent? A hundred? A thousand? A hundred thousand? It’s a fundamental question if you’re trying to create a system that truly works in the best interest of the people.
It should come as no surprise then that this question was hotly debated by America’s founding fathers during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
An early draft of the Constitution declared that, “the number of Representatives [in the House] shall not exceed one for every forty thousand,” but many of the men at the convention thought this number was too high, including one George Washington.
Fun fact: Washington was present for the entire convention, but he only joined the actual discussions on one occasion: to ask that the delegates lower the maximum size of congressional districts to one representative per 30,000 people. The change was agreed upon and is now enshrined in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution.
Today, the average House member represents 729,000 Americans — nearly 25 times more than the limit prescribed in the Constitution. So what the heck happened?? To understand the story, we have to go back to the Constitutional Convention.
Even after the delegates agreed to limit the size of congressional districts, there were still many Americans who felt that one person simply could not represent the interests of 30,000. Some people even argued that creating such large districts amounted to tyranny.
The opposition was so fierce that James Madison — the primary author of the Constitution — felt the need to address the issue in The Federalist Papers (a collection of essays promoting ratification of the Constitution), even going so far as to say that no other aspect of the Constitution was, “more worthy of attention.”
After acknowledging the arguments in favor of smaller congressional districts, Madison rebuffed the critics in no uncertain terms, saying, “Nothing can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on arithmetical principles,” he writes. “Sixty or seventy men may be more properly trusted with a given degree of power than six or seven. But it does not follow that six or seven hundred would be proportionably a better depositary.”
That being said, Madison still understood that the House of Representatives would need to expand as the population of the United States grew, so he proposed an amendment to do just that.
Madison’s idea was simple: the limit of how many people could be represented by a single House member would stay at 30,000 until the House had more than 100 members, at which point the limit would be raised to 40,000 people per representative. Once the House had more than 200 members, the limit would be raised again, this time to 50,000 people per rep (you get the picture).
Unfortunately for Madison, his amendment didn’t make it into the final version of the Constitution. But for a long time it didn’t matter — even without the amendment, the size of the House increased in proportion to the American population for more than 100 years, going from 65 members in the first Congress to 435 after the 1910 census.
Then things changed.
The Republican party swept to power during the 1920 elections, claiming the presidency and both houses of Congress.
Up until that point, the House had typically been reapportioned every 10 years after the new census data was released. But when the 1920 census came out, the new Republican government wasn’t too keen on its findings: millions of immigrants had settled in America since the last census, and a large portion of the US populace had moved from rural areas to urban centers.
Because of these population shifts, many House members — especially ones from rural Southern states — faced the threat of losing their seats if they reapportioned the House to more accurately represent the new reality in America. So they did what most men trying to preserve their power do: left things exactly as they were.
For almost 10 years, Congress simply refused to reapportion the House, led by Republican House Speakers Frederick H. Gillett and Nicholas Longworth, who railed against reapportionment every chance they got. Of course, many Americans were outraged by Congress’ efforts to block reapportionment, especially those living in states that had become underrepresented since the last census.
Finally, in 1929, President Herbert Hoover pressured Congress into resolving the issue once and for all. The result was the Permanent Apportionment Act, which froze the size of the House at 435 representatives. It also established a mathematical formula for redistributing those 435 House seats as demographics in the United States shifted.
When the Permanent Apportionment Act was signed into law in 1929, the US population was roughly 122 million, putting the average number of people per representative at just over 280,000.
Today, the US population is nearly 320 million. Divide that by 435 House seats and you get 729,000 people per representative — the figure I mentioned earlier.
PARTING SHOT: IS SMALLER REALLY BETTER?
It’s easy to look at the numbers and think, ‘Man, we really ought to cut those districts back down to size.’ But what would that actually look like in practice?
Let’s say we limited the size of Congressional districts to 300,000 people. It’s still 10 times larger than the limit prescribed by George Washington and the founding fathers, but it’s definitely better than having 729,000 people per representative, right?
Here’s the problem: if you set the limit at 300,000, the resulting House would have more than a thousand members. Madison captures the risks of such a move better than I ever could in his Federalist Papers essay:
“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
I probably don’t have to tell you this, but the ability to compromise is an increasingly rare attribute amongst American politicians these days. Even at its current size, the House of Representatives has become notorious for political gridlock — one of the main reasons why Congress’ approval rating (13.3%) has been on life support for years now.
Let’s be real: there is no way that one individual can adequately represent the interests of 700,000 people. But while it’s tempting to want to shrink the size of Congressional districts, we have to remember that until we figure out a better system, smaller districts also mean more representatives in the House. And considering how inept the average politician is these days, that might not be the best idea.