How Can the U.S. House Be Made More Representative?

 PS: Political Science and Politics
Volume 31, Number 1, Pages 5-31
© 1998 PS: Political Science and Politics.

The Cambridge University Press would not grant permission,
to, to reprint these articles in their entirety.

PS Editor’s Note:

The first five articles in this symposium are adaptations of papers the authors delivered at the 1997 APSA Annual Meeting as part of a panel entitled “How Can the US. House Be Made More Representative?” The articles are arranged in a more or less logical progression from advocacy of radical reforms (e.g., changing the length of House terms, increasing the number of Representatives, instituting some form of proportional representation), toward a questioning of whether any of the proposed reforms are practical, necessary, or likely to be beneficial.


A More Representative United States House of Representatives?
Joseph F. Zimmerman, SUNY-Albany and
Wilma Rule, University of Nevada, Reno
[The tables referenced below are not included in this excerpt.]
The unrepresentativeness of the U.S. House of Representatives—in terms of ethnicity, gender, race, and socioeconomic status—and its nearly closed system for election have generated questions about the legitimacy and authority of the House as an institution which “represents” citizens and whether the membership of the House should reflect the citizenry at-large.
“The unrepresentativeness of the U.S. House of Representatives …and its nearly closed system for election have generated questions about the legitimacy and authority of the House as an institution which ‘represents’ citizens…”

Model for Unrepresentativeness

The following model explains the dynamic intercorrelated system which perpetuates the unrepresentativeness of the House: high rates of incumbent reelection, large contributions to incumbents’ campaigns, non- competitiveness of political parties in most districts, low voter turnout in elections, and low diversity in representation. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, resulting in fewer districts where a “minority” constitutes a majority or super–majority of the population, contribute to the perpetuation of unrepresentativeness …. The independent variable which drives the model is the majority/plurality election system …. Let us look briefly at each of these factors and the outcomes. First, the high incumbent retention rate (87% in the period 1978-90) adversely affects the opportunity for newcomers and limits voters’ choice. Turnover in Congress since 1962 has resulted from the voluntary retirement of incumbents … as Table 1 indicates. This fact is in stark contrast to the original concept of the House as the legislative body whose composition could change every two years.

Table 1 also shows that the number of retirements from the House tends to be lower in presidential years and higher in midterm elections, when voter turnout is extremely low. This retirement pattern was reversed when retirements increased in a presidential year (1992) and fell in mid-term elections (1994). For the first time in eight elections the House in 1992 had over 20% new members compared to a previous average of only 13%.

Incumbency and Low Diversity

There were double the typical number of open seats in 1992. Women were elected to one-fourth of the 65 open seats …. Other “minorities” and Republicans also increased their share of seats, primarily as a result of redistricting …. The proportions of women and minorities, however, remained low-11% for women and 13% for both blacks and Hispanics, respectively. “Incumbent safety” … reappeared as the norm in 1994-1996 and these elections brought no significant increases in the number of women and minority candidates elected ….

The small proportion of national women legislators (12%) is the most egregious underrepresentation shown in Table 2. Their representation/population ratio of .23 indicates that their underrepresentation is about 77%. Among the 51 women members of the House, Latinas and non-minority women have the lowest ratios. African-American women are higher at about one-third of representation/population parity. …

One-Sided Campaign Contributions

Closely related to incumbent retention is the practice of political action committees (PACs) giving five to eight times more funds to incumbents than to challengers …. In addition, incumbents also receive over four times as much money as do candidates for scarce open House seats …. “Soft money”—given to the two political parties or other groups for campaigning, voter registration drives, etc. is not included in Table 3; …. The campaign finance system places an almost insurmountable hurdle in front of most challengers of an incumbent House member seeking reelection. In fact, only 15% of the challengers are victorious on average …. The need for an incumbent to raise a large amount of money for campaigns generates reliance upon interest groups for funds. The Republican victory of 1994 resulted in a switch in business PACs support from the incumbent Democrats to incumbent Republicans …, leaving the Democrats increasingly dependent on organized labor for campaign finance in 1996 …. Although these groups may receive no special favors, the appearance of favoritism contributes to public cynicism and apathy regarding the House and its representativeness.

Whether Democrat or Republican, a “safe incumbent” in the House with all or most political resources— newsletter, name recognition, media attention, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend—usually swamps his or her challenger …. Voters have minimal choice, and those who vote for the loser may have a sense of futility. Strengthening the enforcement powers and increasing the staffing of the Federal Election Commission could help to even to a degree the financing of campaigns of candidates by ensuring that campaign finance statutes are enforced vigorously.

Voter Boycott of House Elections

Polls reveal that the public has little hope that Congress will enact major campaign finance or other reform …. Furthermore, 41% of the public reported having little confidence in Congress and the same percentage had only some confidence, according to a 1994 Gallup poll …. This evidence supports the argument that the boycott of House elections reflects some voter dissatisfaction over the perceived inefficacy of an individual’s vote, resulting in an “It won’t make any difference, so why vote?” attitude. The above sentiment accords with a study of 29 democracies that links voters’ belief in the inefficacy and lack of salience of their votes to low election turnout in countries using the single member district electoral system. By contrast, most countries with PR have turnouts of approximately 80 percent of the eligible voters … since every vote counts towards a party's representation in parliament.

In the United States, approximately two-thirds of the registered voters do not participate in House elections and one-half do not cast ballots in presidential election years …. The average turnout in House midterm elections … from 1986 to 1994 was 34% and in presidential elections from 1984 to 1992 it was 48% ….


Reforming the House: Three Moderately Radical Proposals
Arend Lijphart, University of California, San Diego
Most observers of the United States House of Representatives undoubtedly agree that in many respects, large and small, the House does not perform its representative function very well. Not being an expert on the details and intricacies of House operations, I shall leave the smaller matters—such as incremental steps to reform the financing of election campaigns—to the specialists.
“The general pattern in democracies is for the size of lower (or only) houses to increase with population size:”

Let me focus instead on three major characteristics that makes the House insufficiently representative: (1) its election by plurality, which does not provide adequate representation for minorities and minority views; (2) its election by an unrepresentative electorate, especially in midterm elections when only about one-third of the eligible voters make use of their right to vote; and (3) its comparatively small size of only 435 members.

Three reforms that would greatly alleviate these defects are the introduction of proportional representation (PR) for House elections, adoption of a four-year term for Representatives, and enlargement of the House by about 50% to roughly 650 members.


Enlarging the House

Finally, the House of Representatives could be made more representative if its membership were enlarged. The general pattern in democracies is for the size of lower (or only) houses to increase with population size: small countries tend to have smaller legislatures than large countries. As Rein Taagepera (1972) discovered, this pattern can be expressed in a neat formula: the size of a country’s national assembly tends to approximate the cube root of its population size. According to this norm, the U.S. House, with its 435 members, is unusually small for a country with a population of about 270 million people; it “should” have a membership of about 650. (The exact cube root of 270 million is 646.) The fact that both the United Kingdom and Germany have lower houses of approximately this size shows that a membership of 650 is not too large for the effective operation of a legislature.

Having 650 Representatives would improve representation in two major ways. First, increasing the membership of the House by about 50% entails a decrease in the population size of the average congressional district by about 50%, which would lessen the distance between voters and their legislators. Second, assuming that plurality elections would maintained, smaller congressional districts make it easier to draw these districts in such a way as to provide representation for geographically concentrated minorities without having to fashion the outrageously shaped districts that the Supreme Court dislikes.


If It Ain’t Broke Bad, Don’t Fix It A Lot
C. Lawrence Evans, College of William and
Mary and Walter J. Oleszek, Congressional Research Service
The House of Representatives is one of the most dynamic of governmental institutions. Formally and informally, the House regularly revises its rules, procedures, practices, and structures to adapt and adjust to, among other things, membership and workload changes. Absent its capacities for reform, the House would soon find itself unable to meet the diverse challenges of the day.
“Maybe 435 is not the right size for today’s House, but 650 seems too large.”
In this article, we want to make the point that legislative reforms should at least try to fix something in House operations that is plainly broken. Several “semi-radical” reforms seem to address imaginary problems with unnecessary solutions. To us, semi-radical reforms include those intended to transform the basic structure, membership, or procedures of the contemporary House. To wit, this includes such ideas as instituting proportional representation for the House, enlarging its size from 435 to 650, or increasing the term of representatives from two to four years. Accordingly, we first examine several semi-radical ideas and then outline our reform objectives for the contemporary House.

Increasing the Size of the House

The Constitution provides for the minimum and the maximum size of the House. It can be as small as 50 members (one per state) or as large as about 8,300 (one member per 30,000 persons using 1990 census figures). Today, the size is statutorily fixed at 435, but some suggest that House membership should be increased to 650 lawmakers. The argument for a larger House is that it would ease the constituency burdens of lawmakers by changing the population ratio per member, provide greater opportunities for the underrepresented to win House seats, and facilitate closer ties between the representatives and the represented. Periodically, proposals are made in the House to increase its membership; sometimes measures are introduced to reduce its size.

Our contention is that a 650-seat House would produce far more negative than positive consequences. First, members hardly know each other. As House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (MO) once said: “Members are islands. They’re very busy, and they don’t often have the time to get to know one another” …. Contemplate what it might be like with 650 lawmakers interacting as “strangers” in a partisan environment where the incentives are to go for the political jugular. Second, the job of coalition-building would certainly be more difficult, as party and other leaders strove to make the compromises and adjustments needed to pass legislation. Delays and stalemates would multiply with a 650-member chamber even though the “majority rule” principle undergirds House operations. Finally, there are a host of practical issues including providing more space and staff for the new lawmakers, reconfiguring the House chamber, increasing the number of committees and/or committee sizes, and revising House rules to accommodate the membership increase. Maybe 435 is not the right size for today’s House, but 650 seems too large.

Reform Objectives for Improving the House

There are many reforms that would improve the organization and operations of the House. Five reorganization categories are briefly listed below in no special order. Whether adopted singly or in combination, each recommendation, in our view, has merit in its own right. These ideas are illustrative of the types of reforms that appear to us to be practical, focused on the realistic concerns of lawmakers, and, under the right conditions, capable of adoption.

1. Strengthen Deliberation … .

2. Promote Civility … .

3. Adjustments to the Committee System … .

4. Reduction in Workload … .

5. Public Understanding of the House … .


Too Much of a Good Thing: More Representative is Not Necessarily Better
John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, University of Nebraska
Reform sentiments are much in evidence on the American political scene as we approach the end of the century, and improving the way public opinion is represented in political institutions is often the major motivation of reformers. This is clear from the essays in this collection, from the activities of contemporary political elites, and from the mood of ordinary people.
“…we need to educate the people about the unrealistic nature of their desires.”

Gross dissatisfaction exists with the nature of representation perceived to be offered by the modern political system. People believe the political process has been commandeered by narrow special interests and by political parties whose sole aim is to contradict the other political party. Given the centrality of representation in the U.S. polity, the organizers and contributors to this symposium are to be commended. It is laudable to want to consider ways of improving the system and, thereby, making people happier with their government. Many of the ideas described in the accompanying essays have considerable merit. We do, however, wish to raise two important cautions: one briefly and the second in greater detail. Perhaps these cautions are not needed; the authors of the accompanying pieces are almost certainly aware of them. Still, general debate often neglects these two points. Therefore, quite apart from whether it is a good idea or a bad idea, say, to reform campaign finance, enact term limits, or move toward proportional representation and away from single-member districts, it is important for readers of PS to keep in mind that 1) “because the people want them” is not a good justification for adopting procedural reforms and 2) actual enactment of the reforms craved by the people will not necessarily leave us with a system that is more liked even by the people who asked for the reforms in the first place. We take each point in turn.

Ignoring the People’s Voice on Process Matters is Not Evil

It would be easy at this point to slip into a discussion of the political acumen possessed by the American public and, relatedly, of the extent to which elected officials and political institutions should listen to the people. But such a discussion has been going on at least since the time of Plato and it is unlikely we would add much to it here. Instead, we merely wish to point out that, whatever the overall talents of the rank and file, political change in the realm of process should not be as sensitive to the public’s wishes as political change in the realm of policy. It is one thing to maintain that in a democracy -the people should get welfare reform if they want it. It is quite another to maintain that those same people should get term limits if they want them.

Just as the Bill of Rights does not permit a simple majority of the people to make decisions that will restrict basic rights, so the rest of the Constitution does not permit a simple majority of the people to alter willy-nilly the processes of government.

Be Careful What You Wish For

One important reason we should be glad ordinary people are not in a position to leave their every mark on questions of political process and institutional design is the very good possibility that people will not be happy with the reforms they themselves advocate. The people generally clamor for reforms that would weaken institutions and strengthen the role of the people themselves in policy decisions. They advocate people’s courts, an increased number of popular initiatives and referenda, devolution of authority to institutions “closer” to the people, term limits, staff cuts, emaciating the bureaucracy, elimination of committees, cessation of contact between interest groups and elected officials, and a weakening of political parties. These changes would clear the way for people to have greater influence on decisions, and this is what the people want, right?

Actually, our research suggests this is not what the people really want. The public does not desire direct democracy; it is not even clear that people desire democracy at all, although they are quite convinced they do.

However, the public does want institutions to be transformed into something much closer to the people. The public sees a big disconnect between how they want representation to work and how they believe it is working. Strong support of populist government (not direct democracy) has been detected in innumerable polls conducted during the last couple of decades. That the public looks favorably upon this process agenda is beyond dispute. A national survey we conducted in 1992 found strong support for reforms that would limit the impact of the Washington scene on members of Congress.

What ties these reforms together is the public’s desire to make elected officials more like ordinary people. In focus groups we conducted at the same time as the survey, participants stated many times that elected officials in Washington had lost touch with the people. They supported reforms believed to encourage officials to start keeping in touch. Elected officials should balance the budget just like the people back home. Elected officials should live off modest salaries just like the people back home. And elected officials should face the prospect of getting a real job back home rather than staying in Washington for years and years. These reforms would force elected officials to understand the needs of their constituents rather than get swept up in the money and power that run Washington.

If these reforms were put into place, would the public suddenly love Congress? We do not think so.


Given people’s widespread belief in popular consensus, it is no wonder they despise the existing structure of governmental institutions. All that these institutions—and the people filling them do is obscure the will of the people by making it look as though there is a great deal of divisiveness afoot. Who then can condone debate and compromise among elected officials if these processes only give disproportionate weight to nefarious fringe elements that are intent upon subverting the desires of healthy, red-blooded Americans? Who then can condone inefficiency and slowness when we all agree on what needs to be done and politicians ought just to do it? Democratic processes merely get in the way. People react positively to the idea that we ought to run government like a business—it would be efficient, frugal, and quick to respond to problems. Of course, what people tend not to realize is that it would also be undemocratic.

Too many people do not understand political conflict; they have not been taught to deal with it; they have not come to realize it is a natural part of a culture such as ours. When they are confronted with it, they conclude it is an indication something is woefully amiss and in need of correction. They jump at any solution perceived to have the potential of reducing conflict; solutions such as giving authority over to potentially autocratic and hierarchical business-like arrangements or to myhically consensual ordinary people.

Our fear is that, if the people were actually given what they want, they might soon be even more disillusioned with the political system than ever. Suppose people were made to feel more represented than they are now; suppose authority were really pushed toward the common person. The first thing people would learn is that these changes will have done nothing to eliminate political conflict. The deep policy divisions that polls now reveal among the citizenry would be of more consequence since these very views would now be more determinative of public policy. Conflict would still be pervasive. Popular discontent would not have been ameliorated. Quite likely, people would quickly grow ever more cynical about the potential for reform to accomplish what they want it to accomplish. Instead of allowing the people to strive for the impossible—an open and inclusive democracy that is devoid of conflict—we need to educate the people about the unrealistic nature of their desires.

Instead of giving the people every reform for which they agitate, we need to get them to see where their wishes, if granted, are likely to lead them. The people pay lip service to democracy but that is the extent of it. They claim to love democracy more than life itself, but they only love the concept. They do not love the actual practice of democracy because it suggests differences, because it is ponderous, because it revolves around debate (bickering) and compromise (selling out) and divisions (gridlock).


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Last updated: 18-November-2007
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