BY JEREMY ETELSON
It’s time for a structural restoration of Congress. The House of Representatives is to be expanded and the Senate reduced. When the constitution was being drafted in 1787, the “frame makers” sought, via Article I, to abandon the unicameral legislature of the post-revolutionary Confederacy. Instead, under the Constitution, we would have a new legislature for the Union, consisting of two different types of legislature. A democratically representative chamber (the House of Representatives) and an advisory chamber (the Senate). Within the “mixed regime” of three competing federal branches, each with a different type of government, the legislature would be composed of two competing chambers, each with a different type of legislature.
However, the modern Congress includes two nearly identical types of legislature. Over the past 234 years, the respective structures of the House of Representatives and Senate have entropically homogenized and no longer serve their original purpose. The House has too few members to adequately represent the current and exponentially growing population. In fact, it has never caught up with the gradual expansion of the electorate through women’s suffrage or civil rights legislation. For example, in 1790 Virginia had approximately 747,160 citizens and 10 house districts: approximately 74,716 citizens per representative. As of 2021, Virginia has a population of about 8.6 million, and for nearly 10 times that number, 230 years later, it has won just one additional seat in the House of Representatives. With 11 districts, Virginia now has about 785,661 residents per Representative, which is about the national average (763,000). For comparison: New York has 27 districts for over 19 million inhabitants (approx. 735,000 inhabitants per representative). Texas has 36 districts for over 29 million residents (more than 820,000 residents per representative).
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How does Germany fare? They have 736 MPs for around 83 million citizens nationwide: 112,948 citizens per MP. Japan? 270,323 citizens per representative. Canada? 109,444.
In the United States, the Permanent Appration Act of 1929 limited the number of seats in the House of Representatives to 435 (the number used after the 1910 Census), effectively diluting each citizen’s potency in American democracy for the future. Interestingly, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, noted that the question of whether this cap is constitutional is not for the courts to address.
In 2023, the Republican Party will regain a majority in the House of Representatives. Aside from the rise of independent voters as the country’s plurality, relatively low turnout, and brazen Republican affronts to the right to vote, the question remains how Republicans, as a consistent political minority, can control the House of Representatives — the “representative” chamber. Does this mean that the house is not really representative?
To an extent, it means that. The “winning coalitions” that are enough for a candidate to win a seat in the House of Representatives are too large. Combine the size of the house districts with strategic maneuvering and voting restrictions, and the structure’s representative function fails. Additionally, each representative has an oversized voice, allowing marginalized elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene to garner national attention for outrageous statements and opinions.
On the other hand, the Senate has become too big. It should, throughout all drafts, be advisory and not subject to the direct influence of the people, much like the federal judiciary. A quasi-judicial chamber within Congress. The Senate’s anti-populist structure has, of course, rightly been softened since the 17th Amendment, which instituted direct votes for senators by the people of their states rather than their state legislatures.
Still, 100 senators is too many. Each senator is no longer an integral part of a deliberative process, but a glorified representative with filibuster powers. In addition, the winning coalitions of too many senators are too small. Seven states have such small populations that they only have one representative in the House of Representatives. That means there are 14 senators, representing a population smaller than two average house districts, each of whom can unilaterally stop the legislative process unless there is a two-thirds majority.
However, given the Senate’s typical inability to invoke cloture, it appears that 100 senators are incapable of deliberative debate and negotiation — the original purpose of the Senate. Perhaps that’s why popular culture hasn’t bothered with Senate debates since the 1850s, the end of what the Senate Historical Office website calls “The Era of Debate.” If not a deliberate acknowledgment that the Senate’s advisory role is a thing of the past, it remains an ironic Freudian slip.
The United States should restore the structure of Congress. A reduction in the size of the Senate would make it more decision-making, but would require a constitutional amendment to change it from two senators per state to either one per state or two per multi-state region. No small thing. However, expanding the House of Representatives would only require Congress to pass legislation. That seems to be worth it. At least if we want to be democratically just as representative, if not more, than our global colleagues.
Jeremy Etelson is a law student at George Washington University. Before going to law school, he graduated from the University of Richmond and earned a master’s degree in political theory and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge. He can be reached at [email protected]