Heed Madison’s wisdom: Make Congress bigger

The Constitution of the United States is a wonderfully successful instrument of government. It has facilitated this nation’s transformation from an agricultural backwater into the most powerful country in the world. It has created a system of ordered liberty, whereby the public interest can be advanced without trampling on individual rights. But nothing is perfect, and even ardent defenders of the constitutional system recognize it is worth considering changes to our governing structure.

Interestingly, there is a very old amendment, proposed by James Madison, that might have relevance to today. The original Bill of Rights actually included 12 amendments, not 10. One of the proposed but unratified amendments regulated congressional pay (and eventually became the 27th Amendment). Another restricted the size of congressional districts. Madison wrote it to appease critics of the Constitution who believed that the House of Representatives would not be sufficiently representative, because the districts would have too many people in them. Madison’s amendment created a mathematical formula for House seats, with the maximum number of inhabitants per district to be 50,000 people.

While Madison’s formula is impractical in 2021 — for today it would mandate a House of more than 6,000 members — the basic idea is worth considering. Is our House of Representatives really representative of the people? Probably not. The average House district has more than 750,000 inhabitants, more than any state had back in 1789. Each district is so populous that it enables politicians to engineer such elaborate gerrymanders that the districts do not represent real communities. Moreover, the size of the House distorts the Electoral College — for the number of each state’s presidential electors is determined by the sum of its House and Senate seats.

The failure of the states to ratify this lost amendment means that only Congress can set the size of the House. And though a larger House would be good for the people of the United States, it would be bad for incumbent members of Congress, who would see their individual power decline with the addition of new members. That’s why its number of members, 435, has not changed for a century. So a constitutional amendment forcing Congress to add seats to account for growth in population is probably the only way to expand the House.

The average House district has more than 750,000 inhabitants, more than any state had back in 1789.

But what of the practicalities? Obviously, a House of 6,000 members cannot work. Where might the line be set without creating a kind of mob in the House? It is hard to estimate that with precision, but the British House of Commons has over 500 seats, and the German Bundestag currently has more than 700. One model from the state governments might be the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which has 400 members despite the state’s relatively small population. If the Granite State can work with 400 in its House, surely the United States can manage 500 or more.

This would make the House more reflective of the vast diversity of our nation, reduce the pernicious effects of gerrymandering, and make the Electoral College more equitable between large and small states. Perhaps it’s time we pick up Madison’s long-lost 12th Amendment.

Jay Cost is the Gerald R. Ford senior nonresidential scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “James Madison: America’s First Politician.”