Issue #8, Spring 2008

Expand the House of Representatives

To read the other essays in the “What's Next? The New Progressive Agenda” symposium, click here.

The Founders intended the House of Representatives, with its small districts and frequent elections, to be the pulse of American democracy. But today’s House often has no measurable pulse at all, its arteries clogged with special interest agendas and self-satisfied members. With guaranteed reelection in computer-drawn districts gerrymandered to further partisan interests, representatives often escape electoral accountability. Challengers are limited by the large size of the districts and their inability to raise enough campaign money. As a result, politics has become cartel-ized–not by Democrats or Republicans, but by incumbents and their affluent lobbying allies.

The Founders wanted House members to be closely bound to their constituencies. Bowing to George Washington’s objection that 40,000 constituents per member was insufficiently representative, the original 65 members represented 30,000 citizens each. It is easy to imagine Washington’s horror if he had known the average district in 2008 would contain close to 700,000 people. No wonder citizens agree in most polls that “no one is listening to me and my family”; they likely have never met their member of Congress. To change how politics is played, we must rewrite some basic rules–and more than double the size of the House of Representatives.

A larger, more representative House is not without precedent. European democracies almost across the board have more legislative members and better representation ratios. The average British MP in the 646-member House of Commons represents 91,000 people, and France’s 577-member assembly boasts a 1-to-102,000 legislator-to-constituent ratio.

Reverting to Washington’s 30,000 constituent standard would be impractical; it would mean a 10,000-member House. Indeed, James Madison recognized the need for some upper ceiling on the number of House members: “A certain number [of representatives] seems to be necessary to secure the benefits of free consultation and discussion…On the other hand, the number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude.” From Madison’s perspective, a 1,000-member House of Representatives, with about 300,000 constituents per representative, would seem reasonable.

A bigger House would require some additional expenditure, but legislative operations comprise a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Staff resources could be held constant, more or less, with costs divided by 1,000 instead of 435. The typical value of each vote would fall, strengthening a governing party’s capacity to pass legislation without buying members’ votes with pet projects. Lobbyists, who would gain little from targeting individual members, would focus on influencing public debates rather than brokering dubious backroom deals.

House expansion would bridge the divide between representatives and constituents. Smaller districts could more closely correspond with community boundaries and media markets. This would provide representation for local concerns and revive long-forgotten traditions of door-to-door retail campaigning. Challengers would need far less money to make their stand, relying on foot power more than a green machine fed by barrels of cash. With candidates making their cases individually to more voters, incumbency would matter somewhat less, and upsets would probably be more common. Diverse ethnic and racial minorities, beyond African Americans and Hispanics, would be able to win some representation.

House expansion will be practically impossible without a Constitutional amendment, something entrenched incumbents would loathe to pass. However, reform can bypass a recalcitrant Congress if two-thirds of state legislatures apply for an Article V Constitutional Convention. Upon ratification by three-quarters of the states, Convention resolutions become adopted Constitutional amendments. Although historically unprecedented and unlikely for the foreseeable future, a new Constitutional Convention is not as far-fetched as one might think. Twice in the past–in 1969 over the “one-person, one-vote” Supreme Court ruling and in 1983 over the balanced budget amendment–32 of the required 34 states applied for one.

The American public’s cynicism toward Congress cannot be diluted by tinkering around the margins. Constitutional reform is necessary to break the stranglehold that professional politicians and moneyed interests have on our government. But it’s no longer enough to throw out the incumbents–we first need to add more members to their ranks.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Cap and Lease Carbon by John Irons

Read More »
Issue #8, Spring 2008
Post a Comment


To make the House more responsive to the citizens, why not put the compact and contiguous (respect for municipal entities and their boundaries) on an equal footing with the other factors used in reapportionment.

Mar 20, 2008, 10:31 AM
Adam Villani:

Expansion of Congress wouldn't require a Constitutional amendment. The cap of 435 we have now was set by Public Law 62-5 in 1911, not by the Constitution. The Constitution's upper limit is that 10,000-member Congress that we'd have if we kept to the 30,000-per-congressperson standard.

Mar 21, 2008, 12:43 PM

The implication is that more direct representation in congress is good, e.g., if a rep was voted in by 40,000, one by 20,000 would be better. And, if each voter represented his interests in every legislative act, the system would be perfect. No. Better to reconsider more indirect representation. For example, let each rep be the rep of x number of state legislators, or counties, rather than 40,000 citizen voters. Put another way, the logic of the electoral college needs to be reconsidered. Less direct democracy is the answer.

Mar 25, 2008, 8:45 AM
DG Cooper:

I'm not sure that a 1,000 member House would in fact be substantially more representative, and I think Mr. Sabato underestimates the financial and practical costs.

However, I'm more interested to know why, so far as I know, there has never been a serious attempt to shift from blatant gerrymandering to objective (perhaps automated) redistricting. Isolated attempts to put the process in the hands of impartial actors (retired judges) appear not to have caught on. Serious redistricting reform would benefit representative democracy far more than expanded numbers.

Apr 1, 2008, 6:05 PM

As a rabid conservative, you'all might find it strange I am in general agreement with an idea all of us should embrace and help promugate: Better political representation. Perhaps a combination of increasing House representation with non-gerrymandered districts would be the best approach. Anyone have any ideas how to change the "rabid" self-interest of our current or future congresspeople to effect this change?

May 29, 2008, 11:25 AM
don't know:

I am of two opinions with regard to Mr. Sabato's opinion.

On the one hand an enlaged House would as he notes decrease per capita represenation. Does that axiomatically lead to a more hetrogenous body?

What happens to the Voting Rights Act? Although that may be a relic vis-a-vis the sucess of the Obama candidacy.

Some states are enacting reapportionment commissions which is "supposed to" take the special interests out of process. If a commission is split between D&Rs this observer sees little change at all.

I'm enamoured by a Constitutional Covention; however. that could allow the tinkering that cetain groups have wanted for years.

So, I don't know. I agree with Mr.Sabato much of the time but on this one I have my doubts.

Jun 10, 2008, 6:24 PM

Increasing the size of the HoR would have the effect of allowing the Electoral College vote conform better to the population. States such as California and New York would gain many more seats and votes while some states that are well below the average such as Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska may gain just one or possilby none. This will lessen the electoral skew created by the EC vote being equal to the sum of Senators and Representatives because the ratio of representatives to Senators will be so much greater.

Jul 25, 2008, 1:45 PM

whta does this expanding the repersentatives really do would it hurt the poeple or be really good or just nutral?

Feb 18, 2011, 10:30 AM
Librado Anglero:

I disagree with your idea Mr. Sabato, i understand your point, but i believe that the more people in office, the better, and faster the job is going to get done. Yes, the price might be higher to have more people, but this is no task to have any mistakes. This is my future as an american, and relying on a thousand isn't nearly as good as relying on 10,000. Lets say the number of people were divided into each state, with your theory, roughly twenty people per state, this goes for the taxes and economy, etc. Madison, and Washington both had ideas that took time of thought and planning, but the reason why Washington's is in the constitution, the reason why we abide by this rule to this day is not just because it works and not many problems had stirred from this that would and possibly could have happened with less people. It works because if one of these 10,000 of people are gerrymandering, or slacking off, there are still 9, 999 left to do the job right.

Nov 19, 2012, 9:47 PM
Worden Report:

At, I argue that George Washington fell short in presiding in terms of the ratification process of the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, Morsi of Egypt came up short in 2012.

Dec 27, 2012, 9:41 PM
Lucy Brown:

I just came across you post. Sorry I'm a few years late.

I don't see a problem with the 10,000 member size that the constitution allows. They don't HAVE to be paid--I'm sure we could find enough qualified volunteers. And they don't even have to travel any farther than their home computers. This is the 21st century, after all. The problem is, of course, that the oligarchs who control our current representatives wouldn't appreciate my idea.

Nov 27, 2014, 7:36 PM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.