The Road to Oligarchy

Why are there only 435 Representatives in the People’s House?

Many of the founders, along with most of the states which ratified the Constitution, fully expected the House of Representatives to forever grow along with the population. In fact, the leading federalist thinkers believed that there would be 400 Representatives in the House by 1838,1In 1888, Federalist 55 assured that at “it can scarcely be doubted that” the number of Representatives will amount to 400 by 1838 (which is only 35 fewer than what we have today). 600 Representatives by 1887,2James Wilson, a delegate to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention, predicted in 1787 there would be more than 600 federal Representatives by 1887: “…the House of Representatives will, within a single century, consist of more than six hundred members.”. James Wilson was no ordinary delegate (assuming any of the delegates were ordinary). Wilson was a lawyer and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was twice elected to the Continental Congress and was a major contributor to the drafting of the Constitution. He was also one of the six justices appointed by George Washington to the first Supreme Court. and contemplated the eventual possibility of six or seven thousand Representatives.3Federalist 55. That’s why the first Congress proposed a constitutional amendment to ensure that the House would forever grow along with the population.

And yet, over two centuries later, Congress has allowed we, the people, to have only 435 Representatives in the “People’s House”. How did this happen? To answer this question, a brief review of apportionment history is necessary.

As required by the Constitution, the federal government conducts a population census every ten years. To date, there have been 24 decennial censuses: The first one occurred in 1790, and the 24th one in 2020.

The purpose of these population censuses is to determine how “Representatives … shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers”.4Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clause 3  This apportionment process uses a mathematical algorithm to allocate the total number of Representatives to the states based on their respective population totals. Relative to each of these apportionments, Congress must determine the total number of Representatives to be apportioned, and the mathematical formula to be used to calculate the apportionment.5The important thing to understand about the various algorithms for calculating the apportionment is that they vary with respect to how the fractional remainder should be rounded. For many states, this can be a very consequential question when the number of Representatives is small relative to the total population, as it is now.  However, this issue will become virtually inconsequential when the size of the House is raised by a significant amount.

Each of these apportionments is implemented for the Congress that commences in third year following the census year. For example, the 1790 census was the basis for the first apportionment, which began with the third Congress in March of 1793. And the 2010 census was the basis for the 23rd apportionment, which began with the 113th Congress in January of 2013.6The Constitution mandates that Congress convene at on March 4th. However, the 20th Amendment permanently moved the commencement of the congressional term to January 3rd, unless the preceding Congress designates a different day by law. (The 24th apportionment will be implemented in the 18th Congress that begins in January of 2023.)

The first 23 of these apportionments are identified in the chart below, along with the total number of Representatives granted by Congress. (The X-axis indicates the timeline in years.) Click on the charts to enlarge.

Note that each of these apportionments remain constant for ten years except when new states were admitted to the union (which last happened in 1959).  As new states were added, their additional Representatives were added to the previously authorized total (until revised by the subsequent apportionment).

For context, two additional charts are provided.  The next chart again illustrates the number of Representatives by congress, along with the total US population7It is worth noting that illegal residents are included in the population totals developed by the U.S. Census Bureau.  These same population totals are also used to calculate the apportionment. (plotted as a line against the righthand Y-axis).

In the chart above, note in particular that while the total number of Representatives has been limited to 435 ever since 1913, the nation’s total population has increased by 250%.8From approximately 95 million (in 1913) to 331 million as of the 2020 census.

Extending the analysis further, the following chart indicates the average number of people per Representative (plotted as a dotted line against the righthand Y-axis). This average congressional district size is simply the total US population (Figure 2) divided by the total number of Representatives for each Congress.  For example, the total population per the 2020 census was 331 million. Dividing that by 435 Representatives results in an average congressional district population of 761 thousand.

As the revolutionaries pass into history

As shown in the preceding charts, the size of the House was increased for each of the first five apportionments just as the founders had envisioned.  And quite significantly, each of these apportionments were in compliance with the intended version of Article the first. That is, each of those apportionments resulted in congressional districts with an average population size between 30,000 and 50,000. It could not be a coincidence that, during this time, many of America’s great revolutionaries and founders were still alive, if not serving in Congress or in the White House. Though these living legends gradually passed into history over time, it is easy to imagine that their presence helped keep the revolutionary spirit alive.

However, after the sixth population census in 1840, the total number of Representatives was reduced for the first of two times.9The total number of Representatives was reduced only one other time. It was raised to 437 after the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, but then the 18th Apportionment reduced it back to 435.  This reduction was attributed to a change in the method used for calculating the apportionment, a manifestly flimsy rationale.  The real reason is more obvious.

A few years earlier, in 1836, the last of the American revolutionaries, James Madison, died. Six years after his death, Congress passed the Apportionment Act of 1842 in which they reduced the total number of Representatives from 242 to 223. Sadly, with all the revolutionaries and founders having finally passed into history, an emerging political class (defined by a two-party system10The two parties being the Democratic Party, which then controlled the House, and the Whig Party.) could finally consolidate their political power by reducing the number of Representatives.

It’s important to note that relative to the matter of apportionment, Madison wasn’t just any revolutionary/founder. In 1789, during the first session of the first Congress, Madison proposed a constitutional amendment to establish a minimum House size in order to correct that part of the Constitution which he had deemed “defective” (because it failed to provide for such a minimum).  After considerable deliberation in the first Congress, Madison’s proposal evolved to become “Article the first” of the Bill of Rights.  Madison’s role in the development, and eventual fate, of Article the first is too complex to be addressed here.  The point is, it cannot be thought a coincidence that Congress abandoned the spirit of Article the first shortly after Madison’s death, and they were able to do that because of the very defect that Article the first was intended to eliminate.

Institutionalizing oligarchy

Though the size of the House was reduced to 223 in 1843, it continued to slowly increase thereafter. By 1913, it had grown to 435 by the 13th apportionment (the 63rd Congress). However, that growth had little to do with granting the citizenry the additional representation envisioned by the founders. Instead, most of this growth resulted from the admission of 22 large western states to the union. Beyond that, the only additional seats resulted from the desire to preserve the existing congressional fiefdoms already granted to the states (especially from 1873 to 1932),11During the six-decade period from the ninth apportionment (1873) to the 14th apportionment (through to 1932), there were only three instances of states having their House delegation reduced.  That is less than 1.2% of the total of 260 instances of state apportionments. Note that the sixth decade of this arrangement was merely a continuation of the 13th apportionment as the Congress failed to reapportion the House.   This arrangement ended with the 15th apportionment (1933), when 21 of the 48 states suffered a reduction in their representation. rather than allowing seats to be shifted from one state to another (as the states’ relative population totals changed).

After the 14th census in 1920, the members of the House failed to pass an apportionment bill, evidently because many of the states were unwilling to have their House memberships transferred to other states in order to accommodate the zero-sum game created by the arbitrary cap of 435. Therefore, for the first time in history, Congress failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to reapportion the House, and the apportionment of the House remained unchanged for 20 years (from 1913 to 1923).

Having successfully disregarded the constitutional requirement to reapportion the House, and having become accustomed to only 435 Representatives, Congress then put our government squarely on the path to oligarchy by passing the “Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929”.12House.gov: The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 It should have been named the Permanent Oligarchy Act as it established that, henceforth, the size of the House would be permanently fixed at 435 regardless of the nation’s total population. It has remained that size ever since (except for a four-year period when it was temporarily increased to 437 after the admission of Alaska and Hawaii).

During the debates preceding the passage of that act, Missouri Representative Ralph Lozier challenged the proposal as follows:

“I am unalterably opposed to limiting the membership of the House to the arbitrary number of 435.  Why 435?  Why not 400? Why not 300? Why not 250, 450, 535, or 600?  Why is this number 435 sacred?  What merit is there in having a membership of 435 that we would not have if the membership were 335 or 535?  There is no sanctity in the number 435 … There is absolutely no reason, philosophy, or common sense in arbitrarily fixing the membership of the House at 435 or at any other number.”

The challenge posed by Representative Lozier is still valid: Is 435 a sacred number or should it be open to debate?

A Representative for every THIRTY THOUSAND

As illustrated in Figure 3, the very first apportionment made by Congress (after the 1790 census) resulted in an average district size of just over 38,000 people for the third Congress (in accordance with the intended version of Article the first13Based on the 1790 census, the intended version of Article the first would have required the average district size to be between 30,000 and 40,000. ).  Largely because the number of Representatives has not increased since 1913, the average population size of a congressional district is now approximately 760,000. Why? Because while the total census population has increased by a factor of 82 from 1790 to 2020, the number of Representatives increased by a factor of less than 7.

This spectacular increase in district population size runs contrary to what was expected by the Founding Fathers as evidenced by various historical documents. For example, Federalist 56 (February 19, 1788) stated that “…it seems to give the fullest assurance, that a representative for every THIRTY THOUSAND INHABITANTS will render the [House of Representatives] both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it.”   Note that the reference to “thirty thousand” – which was capitalized for emphasis in the original text – was posited as the intended House size, and not merely as a maximum.

Reflecting the revolutionary zeal of the time, as well as a deep commitment to republicanism, the explicit assumption throughout the Federalist Papers was that the number of congressional districts (and therefore the number of Representatives) would be increased along with the population at the rate of one Representative for every 30,000 people (hence our name, Thirty-Thousand.org).

The chart below illustrates what would have happened had Federalist 56’s “fullest assurance” been realized. The “Maximum number per the Constitution” is the number of Representatives at one for every 30,000, which was the basis for the projections made by the founders relative to the size of the House.

Also shown in the chart above is the corresponding minimum House size that was to be established by the intended version of Article the first. Therefore, the shaded bars illustrates the founders’ vision that the size of the House would be in the range between a minimum of 1:50,000,14Note that this is the intended minimum House size for all population levels above eight million. For population levels between three and eight million, the minimum House size was to be the greater of 100 or 1:40,000. and a maximum of 1:30,000. Note that Congress complied with the intended version of Article the first for the first five apportionments. Beyond that, for the reasons explained earlier in this article, the intended range begins to rise above the number of Representatives actually authorized.

There is an important historical note related to how the representational ratio came to be based on thirty-thousand.  On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, with the final version of the Constitution ready for signature, George Washington persuaded the delegates to erase “forty” (in “forty thousand”) in order to change it to “thirty”. Interestingly, as shown in the image below, the smudge created by this “erazure” is clearly visible in our Constitution.

The Erazure in the U.S. Constitution

Referring to forty thousand, Washington observed that the “smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Convention an insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people”.  In this context, General Washington is using “proportion” to refer to “the comparative relation of one thing to another”.15This is the first definition of “proportion” provided by the 1828 Webster dictionary.  That is, he believed that a House of Representatives comprised of one Representative for every 40,000 would be too small in proportion to the total population. Consequently, in order to make the proposed constitution more acceptable to the people, a majority of the convention delegates agreed to enlarge the House by reducing the representational divisor from 40,000 to 30,000.

Looking at this question today, many may wonder why Washington, as well as a majority of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, believed that one Representative for every 40,000 would be an “insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people”. It is because, at that time, a district size of 40,000 was considered absolutely huge.  Why?  Because in 1787, the electoral district population sizes of the state legislatures’ lower houses ranged from 1,012 to 6,032, with a nationwide average of 2,778.16Thirty-Thousand.org: Average Number of Residents per Representative Relative to Thirteen State Legislatures   Therefore, it was unthinkable that a Representative in the representative assembly of Congress could possibly represent the interests and concerns of tens of thousands of people.

However, as noted in several Federalist papers, even a House with one Representative for every 30,000 was widely objected to because it was considered “too small to possess a due knowledge of the interests of its constituents”.17Federalist 56.  In response, the federalist papers argued that a smaller number of Representatives was sufficient due to the fact that the Constitution limited the “objects of federal legislation”.  As summarized in Federalist 45, the powers granted by the Constitution to the federal government were to be quite limited:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.”

That is, the representational formulation of one for every thirty-thousand was premised upon the expectation that the federal government’s powers were limited to those explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. Given that, one wonders what district size they would have thought appropriate had they anticipated the tremendous expansion of federal powers beyond that explicitly authorized by the Constitution.

Oligarchy and expanding federal power

Thirty-Thousand.org believes that the alarming expansion in federal power and spending happened as a natural consequence of allowing the People’s House to become the political ruling class’s House.  That is, as the people gradually lost control of our federal House, we gradually lost control of the federal government, thereby allowing the federal government to take greater control over us.  All of this could have been prevented had the intended version of Article the first been sent to the states for ratification.

Any time they choose to do so, Congress could restore citizen control of Congress by substantially increasing the number of Representatives. However, in order to do so, the Representatives would have to be willing to surrender the power and lucre of being a member of the exclusive club of 435. Though it does not require a constitutional amendment to enlarge our representation, it will require one to compel it.  And that was the solution proposed by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress back in 1789.

For the reasons explained throughout this Website, it is imperative that we reinstate smaller congressional districts in order to protect our liberties and restore control of Congress to the citizenry.  By better enabling constituent monitoring of our federal Representatives, community-sized districts will be truly governable, but in the sense that we the people will be able to govern our federal Representatives!

©Thirty-Thousand.org [Article Updated 02/01/22]

Related articles:

American Academy of the Arts & Sciences: How We Got to 435 (Part I of “The Case for Enlarging the House of Representatives”)

NPR.org: Stuck At 435 Representatives? Why The U.S. House Hasn’t Grown With Census Counts

ThoughtCo.com: How Many Members Are in the House of Representatives

BrownPoliticalReview.org: The Politics of Numbers: Why 435 Does Not Add Up

NYTimes.com: America Needs a Bigger House
Also see, Thirty-Thousand.org’s response to that editorial.

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  • 1
    In 1888, Federalist 55 assured that at “it can scarcely be doubted that” the number of Representatives will amount to 400 by 1838 (which is only 35 fewer than what we have today).
  • 2
    James Wilson, a delegate to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention, predicted in 1787 there would be more than 600 federal Representatives by 1887: “…the House of Representatives will, within a single century, consist of more than six hundred members.”. James Wilson was no ordinary delegate (assuming any of the delegates were ordinary). Wilson was a lawyer and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was twice elected to the Continental Congress and was a major contributor to the drafting of the Constitution. He was also one of the six justices appointed by George Washington to the first Supreme Court.
  • 3
    Federalist 55.
  • 4
    Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clause 3
  • 5
    The important thing to understand about the various algorithms for calculating the apportionment is that they vary with respect to how the fractional remainder should be rounded. For many states, this can be a very consequential question when the number of Representatives is small relative to the total population, as it is now.  However, this issue will become virtually inconsequential when the size of the House is raised by a significant amount.
  • 6
    The Constitution mandates that Congress convene at on March 4th. However, the 20th Amendment permanently moved the commencement of the congressional term to January 3rd, unless the preceding Congress designates a different day by law.
  • 7
    It is worth noting that illegal residents are included in the population totals developed by the U.S. Census Bureau.  These same population totals are also used to calculate the apportionment.
  • 8
    From approximately 95 million (in 1913) to 331 million as of the 2020 census.
  • 9
    The total number of Representatives was reduced only one other time. It was raised to 437 after the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, but then the 18th Apportionment reduced it back to 435.
  • 10
    The two parties being the Democratic Party, which then controlled the House, and the Whig Party.
  • 11
    During the six-decade period from the ninth apportionment (1873) to the 14th apportionment (through to 1932), there were only three instances of states having their House delegation reduced.  That is less than 1.2% of the total of 260 instances of state apportionments. Note that the sixth decade of this arrangement was merely a continuation of the 13th apportionment as the Congress failed to reapportion the House.   This arrangement ended with the 15th apportionment (1933), when 21 of the 48 states suffered a reduction in their representation.
  • 12
  • 13
    Based on the 1790 census, the intended version of Article the first would have required the average district size to be between 30,000 and 40,000.
  • 14
    Note that this is the intended minimum House size for all population levels above eight million. For population levels between three and eight million, the minimum House size was to be the greater of 100 or 1:40,000.
  • 15
    This is the first definition of “proportion” provided by the 1828 Webster dictionary.
  • 16
  • 17
    Federalist 56.