The other day I posted an item to my personal blog outlining “eight crazy constitutional scenarios.” One scenario that prompted a few comments was my suggestion that the House of Representatives could be expanded to 25,000 members. That’s technically incorrect. A commenter reminded me that Article I of the Constitution caps the number of potential House members at one for every 30,000 inhabitants. Still, based on current population estimates from the government, that would still allow for a House composed of roughly 10,341 members — a far cry from the current 435 that’s been fixed by law for nearly a century.
Last year I commented on how Britain’s House of Lords was actually more representative of the general population than the US Senate, at least on a member per capita basis. The numbers are even starker when examining the elected lower houses. The US House has one member for every 713,179 inhabitants*, while the UK’s House of Commons (with 650 members) has one for every 95,921. Quite a stark difference.
And this is not an anomaly. I prepared a chart comparing the per capita members of lower legislative chambers (or single houses in two cases) for 12 elected governments. Britain is the norm, not the US:
The final column represents the “US Equivalent,” or what the size of the US House of Representatives would be if it adopted the same per capita apportionment as the country identified at the start of the row. In most cases the US would end up with more than 2,000 House members.
Obviously, more legislators doesn’t equal more freedom, or even less restrictive government. All of the countries on this list are arguably worse off than the US in some ways. But these numbers do undercut the mythology that the US is somehow uniquely democratic-republican in its government. The US House is one of the least “representative” assemblies in the so-called free world.
Certainly there’s no case for reducing the level of representation. And the failure of the European countries on the list above to maintain free societies is, in no small measure, a product of the transfer and consolidation of government powers within the European Union. And while the EU has its own elected parliament, its per capita representation figure (approximately one member for every 681,000 inhabitants) is far closer to the US House than the national legislatures.
A better model for the US House might actually be New Hampshire, long regarded as one of the freer states within the US. The New Hampshire House of Representatives has 400 members, which works out to one member for every 3,311 people. In contrast California, arguably the least free state, has one lower-house member for roughly every 462,000 inhabitants.
Even sticking with the Constitution’s one-for-30,000 maximum would give us a robust House of more than 10,000 members. It would be hard to imagine how this would make things worse. If nothing else, a 10,000-member House would be harder for the president or single party leader to manipulate. There would certainly be greater occupational and intellectual diversity (i.e. fewer lawyers and more libertarian types).
Logistically things would be radically different. The quaint House chamber would be obsolete. You’d need to hold House sessions in a basketball arena or similar facility. Many House functions would be transferred into the world of social networking — committee meetings via Facebook, Wiki-style editing of legislation, Twitter debates. It would make today’s style of backdoor legislating through massive bills that nobody has read or understands virtually impossible. And that of course is the point.
*All population figures are July 2010 estimates published by the CIA World Factbook.