Congress has a representation problem
Blake Ziegler | Thursday, October 14, 2021
In April, the U.S. Census Bureau released the new apportionment of representatives allotted to each state for the House of Representatives. Several states lost one seat, others gained a seat and Texas gained two. Political analysts and commentators in the media have spent the time speculating the new apportionment’s effect on the 2022 midterm elections. With the Democrats’ slim majority in the House, everything matters.
While it’s amusing to predict an election being held in one year, a more important consideration is evaluating the number of representatives. The U.S. Constitution provides no rule for the number of people a representative should actually represent. The only indications are that each state receives at least one representative and that the first Congress included one representative for every 30,000 citizens. Beyond that, Congress has determined the constituency size of its members.
In 1929, the Permanent Apportionment Act was signed into law and established 435 as the number of seats in the House. That number hasn’t changed since, contrary to the historical trend of the House expanding alongside the growing U.S. population. The result of this stagnation is that while there was one representative for every 209,447 citizens in 1929, that number has skyrocketed to one representative for every 754,574 citizens in 2020.
Here lies the serious representation problem for the House. One individual cannot adequately represent the interests of over 700,000 people. The bureaucratic and staffing infrastructure necessary for such a number alone presents an ineffective system that is not respondent to constituents. This has an enormous impact on governing, demonstrated by the empirical decline in bills passed by Congress. Moreover, research shows that representatives of these oversized districts take the opposing position of what their constituents actually want. 700,000 is simply too many interests, concerns and voices to listen to that one member of Congress cannot faithfully represent.
The problem doesn’t end there. Capping the House at 435 seats has led to a decennial battle between the states on who wins or loses seats. Consider a state that experiences a significant increase in population. One may reason that such a state should gain more representatives. Yet, it may retain the same number of seats or even lose seats depending on the population change of the other states. Rather than basing representation on the actual citizens being represented, the country is left in a free-for-all for a finite number of seats in the House. That’s not good for democracy, especially for the citizens that are left out.
This predicament also has implications for the Electoral College, since the number of electoral votes is based on the number of seats in Congress. If one house of Congress is not actually representative of the country, it’ll also unfairly represent the country during presidential elections. This leads to the disenfranchisement of millions of American citizens, similar to the other ongoing issues associated with the Electoral College.
Compared to other OECD nations, the U.S. has a drastically higher representative-to-citizen ratio. After America, the country with the second-highest ratio is Japan at one representative per 272,108 citizens. Now, many of these countries are able to boast better ratios because of their significantly lower population than the U.S. Regardless, if the U.S. is supposed to be a beacon of democracy, it must actually be a democracy. One of those steps is better representation in the legislative branch.
Most solutions to our nation’s representation problem involve lowering the number of citizens associated with a representative. This results in the significant expansion of House seats. For instance, shifting the representative-to-citizen ratio from 1:700,000 to 1:250,000 increases the number of House seats to 1,324. I’m not committed to a particular ratio, but it seems that any ratio significantly different enough from our current situation would require a substantial increase in House seats.
Such a situation would do wonders for our democracy. More elected officials allow for greater representation of people’s interests in a finite, nuanced way. Representatives can focus easier on their constituencies and adequately act on their behalf in Congress. It enables a wider variety of experienced individuals to enter government work, helping the project of efficient governing. This expanded Congress would also better represent historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, particularly women and minorities. As an added bonus, it would be more difficult to gerrymander congressional districts, reducing manipulation in the election process.
Now, it would be very difficult to procure the infrastructure to support a 1,000+ member Congress. New offices would need to be built, equipped with the proper staff and resources to let Congress do its job. I’ll concede that this is an important hurdle to overcome, but am not convinced a nation with a budget of nearly $5 trillion can’t afford new office buildings. Still, there are other models that add roughly 100 seats to the House, which would be a better improvement than doing nothing while achieving some of the results I’ve mentioned.
It’s clear that Congress has a representation problem. Our government will continue governing inefficiently and remain unresponsive to the people until that’s resolved. The only way that will change is with action. Luckily, a bill was introduced in the House in February that would establish a commission to recommend changes to the membership size in the House. Whether that bill will lead to anything is dependent on enough voices demanding a solution to our broken system.
Blake Ziegler is a junior at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He enjoys writing about politics, Judaism and the occasional philosophical rant. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or followed at @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.