The Depreciation of the House of Representatives and the Way Back

By Cruz Marquis

The government brought into being by the Constitution is a compromise between aristocratic and republican inclinations of the founders. In the chief branch, the legislature, both interests were given a chamber where the one would predominate over the other: The monied, learned, and landed Senate, and the yeoman, practical, and down to earth House.

Due to their biennial elections, the House is closer to the people and their interests are represented directly. Should a member transgress and support statist usurpations or personal avarice, the chances for his removal qua ballot box are frequent. At the same time, the large number of representatives relative to senators makes the former at the individual level weaker and, thus, more easily checked in case owing to the closeness to the people, egalitarian instincts produce a demagogue.

So far so good, if the Federalist theory of the House is believed, there should be no problem when the institution is tempered with the contemplative and slow-moving Senate. Alas, the stumbling block is apportionment, and the situation today is much different than it was when the Constitution was being debated.

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 reads in part: “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand…” If the original plan held, the ratio of representatives to citizens would hover around this number in perpetuity with the chamber being periodically expanded as populations swelled. This worked until congress was unable to agree on how to reapportion itself following the 1920 census and in exasperation, gave up the ghost forever by passing the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 nearly a decade later, fixing the chamber size at its present 435.

The system was already breaking down by 1929, at that point the average district contained 210,000 citizens, a far cry from original 30,000, which had long since slipped into the mists of history. After four score and thirteen years of ignoring it, the problem has not magically gone away, it got much worse. As of 2020, the average district contained 760,000 citizens, an absurd and dysfunctional number incapable of efficient representation.

A non-expanding House coupled with a blossoming population do not go together. If the chamber is the spokesman for the interests of the common man, how is his voice to be heard when it is submerged by hundreds of thousands of others? For perspective, the anti-federalist foes of the constitution found issue with the original ratio of Representatives to citizens found in the Constitution. The following excerpt from The Additional Letters from the Federal Farmer, a prominent anti federalist essayist, is surreal:

“A man that is known among a few thousands of people, may be quite unknown among thirty or forty thousand. On the whole, it appears to me to be almost a self-evident position, that when we call on thirty or forty thousand inhabitants to unite in giving their votes for one man, it will be uniformly impracticable for them to unite in any men, except those few who have became eminent for their civil or military rank, or their popular legal abilities: It will be found totally impracticable for men in the private walks of life, except in the profession of the law, to become conspicuous enough to attract the notice of so many electors and have their suffrages” (Frohnen, Bruce Ed. The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches. Regnery Publishing. 1999. Page 214).

The Federal Farmer’s accusation may have been spurious with 18th century levels of representation, but it is certainly not so today. It may have been very difficult for an average man to enter politics in America’s early days, but now it is hardly possible to do so without devoting one’s entire self to the Washington rat race, which is precisely what the Jeffersonians warned of. There can be no citizen legislators in a nation of such lopsided representation and bloated complexity and bureaucracy of state, only career politicians.

Anecdotally, political science gives some insight on whether this deficit of representation matters. FiveThirtyEight ranked 31 democracies by average population per seat. Among this group, the US has the second highest ratio of citizens to seats, only beaten by India (2,442,161) and other countries in this range included the dysfunctional states of: Brazil (412,702), Columbia (285,377), and Mexico (257,299). At the other end of the spectrum were the less sketchy democracies including Switzerland (42,020), New Zealand (41,046), Denmark (32,790), Sweden (29,233) and Finland (27,858). Needless to say, it would be better to be in the company of the latter group of democracies than the former and representation is a major difference.

Such is the problem, and the solution might be reverting the Pre-Permanent Apportionment Act system: Periodically expanding the House. The exact consequences of this would be unpredictable and much would rest on how congress negotiated it, but a few things are apparent.  

Gerrymandering would be much more difficult since smaller districts can “waste” fewer votes by packing predictably partisan voters into one place, creating a safe district but leaving neighboring ones open to being seized by the gerrymandering party. States growing slower than others sometimes lose seats under the current system and that would happen less frequently with a bigger House.

More races to oversee would weaken the control of the parties of their candidates and allow for more independence, which may allow more liberty-minded Republicans to win their primaries. Smaller districts could also finally make the Libertarian Party competitive in certain areas, and once the illusion of the two-party duopoly is broken, more voters will certainly defect.

The drawbacks are however apparent: The major cities will gain seats, thus, aiding the Democrats and hurting the cause of liberty. As representation returns to reality, the question is if the friends of liberty can make the popular case for a free society, and if the citizenry will agree.

The interests of the common man always and everywhere are vested in a free society. Rising tides lift all boats is more than just a catchphrase, it is the economic reality that people given the space to associate, invest, labor, and invent will produce a more prosperous whole with benefits for everyone, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Libertarians and conservatives must unite republicanism and liberty to fix the democratic deficit in the House, thus, returning power to the individual, and then make the case for a free society.

Naysayers do err by saying the demise of liberty and community are written in the stars by demographics. No earthly development is unavoidable and to say that aggregates and probability trump choice, and the rational weighing of alternatives is deeply insulting to the human spirit, the very thing which keeps the light of liberty burning even yet. Hans Hoppe put it this way:

“To be sure, history is ultimately determined by ideas, and ideas can, at least in principle, change almost instantly. But in order for ideas to change it is not sufficient for people to see that something is wrong. At least a significant number must also be intelligent enough to recognize what it is that is wrong. That is, they must understand the basic principles upon which society — human cooperation — rests: The very principles explained here. And they must have sufficient willpower to act according to this insight.”

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