We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. – John Adams, October 11, 1798
How the House of Representatives came to have 435 members is clear. Congress regularly increased the size of the House according to population growth until the number of voting members was set at 435 in 1911. The Constitution requires “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand,” a requirement that is moot today when each member has about 700 thousand constituents.
Why 435? That seems to be an unwieldy number. Are these reasons for a number as large as this valid?
- A member can’t effectively represent more than 700,000 constituents.
- Each member contributes by serving on one or more committees.
- Collective wisdom of many exceeds that of a few.
- A large number of members is a barrier to collusion.
- Various member represent diverse points of view.
I find these reasons weak–a member with 700,000 constituents can’t be said to represent them individually, most committee work is done by staff, members seldom reason together collectively, and members already do collude in partisan actions. Some members do represent minority groups or, as Ron Paul did, unpopular ideas, but even at 435 not all groups or views have a proponent. Thus there seems to be little justification for as many as 435; would a smaller number serve us better? Here are some arguments.
- A smaller number might hope to become acquainted with each other and thus more prone to collegiality.
- Members would be less likely to be subservient to parochial interests.
- Members would be more prominent, and thus more subject to public scrutiny.
- We might require a smaller number to reside in the Capitol and work full-time, reimbursing reasonable expenses of that.
- One might hope that the smaller number would be highly qualified.
- A member wishing to speak might be less likely to be speaking to an empty chamber.
There is the danger that a small number of colleagues working closely together might be more prone to corruption than a larger number, yet a House of 435 is no sure barrier to corruption either.
John Adams clearly recognized that the elaborate Constitutional checks and balances as well as the guarantees in the Bill of Rights are futile unless educated, responsible citizens elect representatives committed to putting the public interest before self interest, party interest, or special interests. Avarice, ambition, revenge, and gallantry are inevitable, but the Constitution has endured. Still, it might serve us better if the number of Representatives were smaller.
© William Hungerford – July 2014