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News / Northwest

We the People: Is the House of Representatives too small to serve a population so large and complex?

By Roberta Simonson, The Spokesman-Review
Published: September 18, 2023, 10:30am

In the We the People series, The Spokesman-Review examines a question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Who does a member of the House of Representatives Represent?

In theory, members of the House of Representatives answer not to the country, not to their respective states, but to the citizens of their legislative district.

“The House of Representatives is supposed to be the voice of the people. It’s supposed to be the body of our government that’s actually the closest to the people,” said Harvard University professor and political theorist, Danielle Allen.

Allen gave a speech at Gonzaga University on Sept. 8 titled “Bringing Democracy Back from the Brink.”

Students and community members of all ages attended the event and nearly all of them raised their hands when Allen started her presentation by asking the question “How many people are maybe a little worried about our democracy?”

Referring to a rise in wealth inequality, mass incarceration and polarization, Allen said “we’ve lived through what I call the ‘Great Pulling Apart.’ “

“This democracy thing, it’s not just supposed to be abstractly,” she said. “Yes, we love the ideals of freedom and equality, but the whole point of this notion that we the people can govern ourselves, is that we’re actually supposed to be able to do it well enough that we build a world where every generation can move forward together. So something’s gone wrong.”

Allen cited a few root causes of this “Great Pulling Apart,” including social media, disinformation and a governmental system that is straining under a nation of such size and complexity.

“We’re a lot bigger than we used to be trying to live in this house. We’re a heck of a lot more diverse, more complex, we’re heterogeneous, and also this house wasn’t built for everybody originally. Some folks had beautiful light -filled rooms with a view; others got delegated to the basement.”

As part of work that she calls democracy renovation, Allen offers a number of institutional changes the United States could take that she believes would help address America’s predicament.

One of those is increasing the size of the House.

“We need a bigger House of Representatives,” she said. “The size of the House of Representatives grew for a century and a half after the founding and was arbitrarily capped at the current number in 1929. Lots of the other problems are flowing from that, because it was supposed to grow, sort of shift with the demographics.”

Allen points to the public perception of Congress as a signal that the institution needs change.

“In 2013, Congress had an approval rating of 9%,” she said. “I saw that, and was like, you know, the House represents Congress as the first branch of government. It is the branch’s purpose to be the voice of the people. That means we the people approve of our own voice 9%. That makes us a self-hating people. That’s not good — that’s a problem.”

Right now, Congress’ approval rating sits at 19%.

Allen says the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have wanted districts to be as large as they are today.

“At the time of the founding, George Washington, the only time he spoke at the constitutional convention was to recommend a lower ratio of constituents to representatives,” Allen said. “He wanted us to target 30,000 constituents to every representative. We’re currently at on average 750,000 constituents to a rep.”

Right now there are 435 seats in the House of Representatives. One representative per every 30,000 citizens would leave us with around 11,000 seats in the house.

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Allen isn’t suggesting that large of a change, especially over a short time. In her columns for the Washington Post, Allen discusses this issue in depth and offers a variety of options in expanding the size of the House, ranging from 572 to 9,400 members.

Allen believes a larger house would lead to a more efficient and responsive Congress that would leave room for a variety of ideologies and ideas.

“The size of the House flows through to the structure of the Electoral College, so the imbalance in the Electoral College, where less populous states have ever more influence on the election, is a direct result of capping the size of the House. The Electoral College would be fairer, would be less likely to give us sort of a split result between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote if we let the size of the House grow again,” she said. “Growing the House would, in lots of different ways, make it easier for members of Congress to do their jobs well for their constituents.”

Allen says change is essential for America to secure democracy for future generations and that in order to achieve that change, the United States needs a supermajority of Americans committed to protecting and renovating its democracy. That, she said, would take people working across ideological lines.

“We have to be able to invite them into something worth their time,” she said. “If we desire to pass on a stable democracy to rising generations, if you who are younger desire to have that full experience of empowerment and agency that a healthy democracy can bring, together, we need to commit to building a supermajority for democracy.”