The Forgotten Amendment
Updated: Jul 13, 2019
As Americans, we revere our Founding Fathers, and rightfully so. They were great men whose list of accomplishments in building the United States of America from colony to independent democracy are beyond measure. What we often forget is how much debate went into forging this country of ours. Bickering, squabbling, and, even more frightening, plus the talk of revolt and sedition was not unheard. While we think of partisan politics as a product of today’s age, it goes without saying that the writing of the United States Constitution was not immune from partisan politics, in fact, the writing of the Constitution might be where our current two-party system originated. Federalists vs. anti-Federalists. Strong-Central Government vs. Weak-Central Government. Nation vs. State.
One item lost and discarded during the country building process was one that we should perhaps reconsider in some comparative form as well as the original first amendment to the Bill of Rights – The Congressional Apportionment Amendment. We will call it the CAA for short. Strange, the first amendment proposed by James Madison after the initial ratification of the Constitution was one regarding apportionment. Maybe he thought it was important? It came tantalizingly close to approval, falling one state legislature away from inclusion to the Bill of Rights (technically it is still up for ratification needing 27 states now). Its simple purpose would have created a mathematical formula to determine the number of House Representatives that would be appointed to Congress based on population. Initially, it would have been 1 per 30,000 persons and eventually would have been increased to 1 per 50,000 persons. If applied to today’s population, the House would have approximately 6,584 members (based on 2019 numbers). Admittedly, that is a huge number and would lead to wholesale confusion, but the general idea behind increasing the number of Representatives is a sound one. The initial framers understood that the House was a representative body of the people.
The fact that the U.S. House was always supposed to be a legislative body in service of the people while the Senate represented the interests of the States is not lost even in today’s historical teachings. The purpose of the bicameral legislature was taught in my grade school as the House is for the people and the Senate is for the States. Unfortunately, the worsening of population-to-representative ratio has made that an untrue fact, i.e. we tell ourselves it is true but in reality, it is false. Starting in 1789 with the initial ratification and over the next 250-years, the population of the United States grew at a rate unforeseen by 18th-Century Americans finally reaching the 2019 number of 329,129,348 persons. Eventually, Congress decided to cap the number of Representatives at 435 with the Apportionment Act of 1911 when the United States had a population of roughly 93,863,000. The end result was that each House member represented about 215,777 persons (we are not going to even consider the imbalance that occurs in large and small population states do to the Constitution guaranteeing 1 House member per state). This number, while still large, was much closer to what the original Framers would have wanted. While it was the correct decision to limit the number, it is unlikely that most thought it would be the final time that our Nation would visit the issue of Congressional apportionment.
Today, at our 2019 population, a single House member represents approximately 756,788 persons which is way too many. A city, the size of Pittsburgh (2019 pop-302,500), essentially has its interests spoken for by ½ a Congressperson. That is an unacceptable ratio and part of the reason that Congress is broken today. A Representative should be representing the interests of the people in a small, geographic area. The interests of inner-city Pittsburgh are different than the upscale suburbs of Sewickley are different than the Appalachian foothills of Westmoreland county.
A more reasonable approach is to take the 1911 average representation of 215,777, raise it to perhaps 250,000 and use that has a figure for determining representatives to the House. The current numbers would be 329,129,348 / 250,000 which would make 1317 members of the House. Likely, you initially balk at the number. Most individuals would say we need fewer people involved with the government and not more. I, however, believe that it is a misguided theory based on the incompetence of recent Congresses where only 20% of Americans approve of the job they are doing, according to a recent Gallup Poll. What we really need is more government officials taking an interest in the needs of their constituents. An increase in the number of Representatives would accomplish this by having a cascade of positive effects on our democracy.
First, the greatest danger to democracy in America in the eyes of most Americans is money, or more accurately the funneling of money to various campaigns. Many Americans, and rightfully so, see money as a corrupting influence where even the righteous are easily corrupted. However, money becomes less of an issue when it is not concentrated into fewer hands. An increase of 302% in the number of House seats means that there is substantially less money going to each of the candidates in the seemingly never-ending election cycle. The influence of big business, billionaire donors, and SuperPACS are greatly diminished when the number of elections taken place triples. (I would further propose that the elections be divided, so that half were held in odd years and another half were held in even years, but that is another issue altogether.) People running for Congress would be more beholden to the district’s voters than to these other outside entities. A House Representative might actually be from your hometown and even your neighborhood.
Second, if money isn’t the greatest danger to American democracy than it might be gerrymandering. The process of dividing up House districts along irregular geographic lines is nothing new. Cracking and packing districts have long been used by both parties to gain an edge, but now with the rise of sophisticated computer modeling, very detailed maps that are drawn down to the exact address on a street decide who is a member of which district. With added seats, gerrymandering becomes much more difficult. For example, North Carolina with 13 House members, has been in the news much of last decade even leading to a hearing in the Supreme Court where its politically gerrymandered districts were determined to be an issue beyond the scope of the court. A state that leans Republican by about a 55-45% margin manages to control 10 out of 13 districts by the favorable drawing of lines. The three Democrats routinely win their areas with a 75-25% victory, and meanwhile, Republicans take the other ten with 55-45% margins. If North Carolina were to suddenly be given 30 House seats, the division would become that much tougher. This will not solve the problem of gerrymandering, but it is a step in the right direction.
Finally, would it not be great to have a variety of different views being debated on Capitol Hill, followed by some bi-partisan negotiations that resulted in a bill that no one is happy with, but everyone agrees is the fairest to both sides? Well, it may sound counter-intuitive initially, but crossing the aisle would be much more commonplace. In recent years Democrats have become much more liberal and Republicans have become much more Conservative. I am very liberal, but I would rather see compromises that moved the country forward rather than gridlock. Independents and 3rd-party candidates would also be more commonplace because they are representing the interests of a smaller minority. They would have the resources to compete in local elections and even if a member of the party was elected, they would not be so beholden to the party apparatus. The parties will have less invested in the candidate and so the candidate will have not to fear having the vast party machine behind them and demanding that they fall inline. A variety of views will spring up in both parties and the communication across the aisle will increase.
The obvious drawback is size, but in all honesty, when you add the 100-member Senate, the Population-to-Legislative Seat Ratio is about 596:000:1 and is actually one of the worst ratios in the world. The United Kingdom has 1,443 legislative members with a ratio of 44,173:1, France with 925 members in its legislature has a ratio of 71,631:1, heck our neighbor to the north, Canada has a 413 member legislature and only an 84361:1 ratio. The United States is the 2nd worst Population-to-Legislative Seat Ratio in the world and trails only India, a country with well over 1 billion people.
Unfortunately, our Founding Father’s vision or at least some version of it will probably never be realized. The obvious reason is that the members of Congress are not going to willingly give up the power and money that they have all become so accustomed too. They will speak of gridlock and will use fear mongering about large government as a means to defeat any meaningful reform. Americans may be accustomed to the number 435 when describing the House but 1317 sounds like a much better number to me.
For Further Reading on Congressional Apportionment
The University of Michigan Apportionment Calculator allows you to play with adjusted state populations and House seats (up to 999) - https://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/dis/census/tools/apportionment/
Brookings Institute, a D.C. Think-tank, with people way smarter than me discussing this exact issue - https://www.brookings.edu/research/dividing-the-house-why-congress-should-reinstate-an-old-reapportionment-formula/
Article on the Congressional Apportionment Amendment - https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/getting-bigger-house/