“It was rare that the people were oppressed by a government’s not doing; and little danger to liberty could flow from that source.” – Melancton Smith
“I know not how better to describe our form of government in a single phrase than by calling it a government by the chairmen of the Standing Committees of Congress.” — Woodrow Wilson, 1885
The House Committees
With respect to determining the scalability of the House of Representatives, the first area to be evaluated is the scalability of the House’s committees and subcommittees, as that is where virtually all their work gets done. In order to do that, it is helpful to have a little historical context with respect to the committee system.
From Committees to “Little Legislatures”
In the early years of the republic, the entire House would sometimes convene as a Committee of the Whole in order to focus on specific matters such as the federal budget or proposed legislation. However, such deliberations became increasingly unmanageable as the House grew larger and the issues became more numerous and complex. Early on, the House began delegating work to temporary “select committees” and, over time, some of these were converted into “standing committees”. In fact, by 1795, four standing committees were established, indicating that even a House of only 105 members is too “unwieldy” for certain business to be conducted in the whole.
The traditional practice of convening a Committee of the Whole was largely discontinued in the early 1800s, when the size of the House was approaching 200. By the early 1900’s, some of the standing committees’ work was further delegated to subcommittees, which was the next step in the evolution of the House’s committee structure.
The modern committee system traces its beginnings to the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970. As currently defined by the House, a “Committee of the Whole” is quite different than its historical antecedent. Most notably, it does not require the participation of the “whole”, or even a majority thereof! Its purpose is to get work done by bypassing the usual rules governing proceedings in the House. Often convened to consider major bills, its time for debate is limited to an hour. The modern Committee of the Whole is effectively like a Standing Committee, except that every House member has the option to participate (or not).
Today the committees (including subcommittees) are considered “little legislatures” which operate as legislative sub-organizations that focus on specific areas. Most of the committees are devoted to the development of legislation which, after going through several steps in the committee process, may be sent to the floor of the House for consideration. Other committees focus on non-legislative activities such as investigating allegations of wrongdoing, and oversight of various governmental agencies.
According to the September 2021 list of House committees, there are 20 Standing Committees, six Select Committees, and four Joint Committees, plus 104 subcommittees, for a total of 134 committees. These committees are responsible for a wide range of very consequential areas such as agriculture, homeland security and veterans. See the adjacent table for an overview.
Too Few Representatives
As of September of 2021, 439 House members were given 2,608 committee assignments, which is an average of six committees per House member! Again, that is just an average: 22 House members are on ten or more committees, and two of those Representatives are on 12 different committees!
Many of these committees and subcommittees (collectively “committees” herein) have very broad oversight responsibilities and legislative scope. Perhaps the most powerful of the standing committees are Energy & Commerce, Appropriations, and Ways & Means (which is why the members of these committees are so heavily courted by lobbyists). In addition, each of these standing committees have several subcommittees which focus on disparate areas of concern.
For example, the “Foreign Affairs” standing committee has the f0llowing six subcommittees:
- Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights
- Asia, The Pacific, Central Asia, and Nonproliferation
- Europe, Energy, The Environment, and Cyber
- Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism
- International Development, International Organizations, and Global Corporate Social Impact
- Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration, and International Economic Policy
Referencing the first subcommittee listed above, why is Africa lumped together with “Global Health” and “Global Human Rights” into a single subcommittee of 14 members? Shouldn’t a continent that is 23% larger than North America and encompasses 34 countries warrant its own subcommittee? With a much larger House, each of these important areas can have their own dedicated committee members who are not also serving on unrelated committees.
And likewise, consider the third subcommittee listed above (“Europe, Energy, The Environment, and Cyber”). How do these four extensive topics get lumped together into a single subcommittee comprised of 19 House members? Wouldn’t we be better served if a separate set of Representatives were assigned to each of these important areas? The list of subcommittees reveals many other examples of important and disparate areas being grouped together into single subcommittees.
Given the tremendous scope of these committees’ responsibilities, it stands to reason that any one of their areas of focus would require a considerable amount of the Representatives’ time, especially given the extraordinary amount of time these Representatives must also spend on fundraising.
An analysis of the committee assignments reveals a densely compacted committee structure which results from allocating a few hundred House members to over 2,600 committee assignments. The extent to which a single Representative can be spread so thinly across too many committees is illustrated below by the example of Representative Cohen, who simultaneously served on three standing committees and nine subcommittees.
Note the broad scope of the committees identified above, which are only 12 of the House’s 134 committees! Referencing the example illustrated above, how much better would Americans be served if one set of Representatives focused exclusively on “Water, Oceans and Wildlife”, while a different set of Representatives focused exclusively on “Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security”? Instead, one Representative serves on both committees, plus ten more!
Based on the current committee data analyzed for this report, if we limited the Representatives to two committees (e.g., a committee and a subcommittee), that would require nearly 1,800 Representatives. And many more would be required if some of these mega-committees were properly divided into their respective subject areas (e.g., create four separate committees for Europe, Energy, The Environment, and Cyber).
Send in the Staffers
In defending the current status quo, it will be pointed out that the Representatives have plenty of staffers to assist them with the work of these committees. And indeed they do! In 2021, the House of Representatives had 1,320 staffers designated just for the committees. That is in addition to the 6,329 staffers assigned to support the Representatives’ themselves. This raises the question regarding the extent to which the Representatives are directly involved in, and responsible for, the important legislative and other matters handled by the committees, versus how much is conducted by unelected staffers? And how many of these staffers could be (and should be) replaced by Representatives in a much larger House?
It cannot be doubted that many of the Representatives currently assigned to these committees have very little knowledge about these particular areas. And because they have very little free time to develop the necessary expertise, they are heavily dependent on their staffs to manage their thinking. Consequently, we are forced to wonder how qualified these staffers are to advise our Representatives. Consider that the average age of these staffers is 32, while the average age of the Representatives is 58. Consider also that the average legislative aide salary is approximately $46,000, which is about a quarter of what the Representatives are paid. Even if we assume that our Representatives have the necessary specialized knowledge to serve on these committees, it cannot be imagined that their staffers have the real-world experience, wisdom and expertise to pinch-hit for them. In fact, according to a survey, senior congressional staffers “do not feel their human resources are adequate to support Senators’ and Representatives’ official duties”.
In any case, regardless of how much staff the taxpayers provide, there is no way that the Representatives can competently and expertly handle so many different subject areas given how thinly they are spread across these committees, especially given their other responsibilities and fundraising activities. And with respect to fundraising, for many of the Representatives, the ability to raise money off their committee assignments may be their primary motivation for wanting to be appointed to these committees.
Creating a Robust Committee System
There is clearly a need to have a much larger number of Representatives to allocate to so many committee assignments in order to ensure that these important matters get the full attention they deserve. An additional benefit of enlarging the House is that with several thousand Representatives – instead of 435 – there would be many more capable men and women from which to choose to maximize each committee’s overall expertise, rather than today’s everyone-gets-a-trophy committee assignments.
Another advantage of representational enlargement is that those states with smaller populations will finally be able to fully participate in the House’s committee process. Currently, 15 states have three or fewer Representatives, with six states receiving only one Representative each, severely limiting their ability to have their concerns represented in the House’s many “little legislatures”. As a result, the states with only one Representative currently participate in four to nine committees (or subcommittees) each, whereas Texas and California have 195 and 326 committee assignments, respectively. This creates a tremendously inequitable disparity in committee participation. For example, whereas California has 52 times as many Representatives as Wyoming, they have 81 times as many memberships in the House’s little legislatures. This is, in effect, big-state hegemony, rather than proportional representation, at least with respect to where the work of Congress actually gets done. There is absolutely no rationale for this inequity other than the oligarchy’s desire to preserve its reign.
A Large House in Session
In a House of several thousand Representatives, it would be reasonable to expect that approximately 500 of them continue working in DC just as they do now (but without the need to spend most of their time fundraising and being entertained by lobbyists). To effectuate that, each state would develop a protocol for selecting a delegation to serve in DC. That selection process could be based on a combination of factors such as seniority, party affiliation, and caucus membership.
Under such an arrangement, the smaller states could send relatively larger delegations than they can now. For example, whereas today the House has two delegates from New Hampshire and 52 from California, a larger House might have six delegates from New Hampshire and 25 from California. There is no reason that the states’ delegations that are working in DC would have to match the underlying apportionment of representation.
Given that the committees are easily scalable with a growing House, the next question concerns the scalability of the House sessions themselves as they relate specifically to the consideration of legislation proposed by the committees. The subject of how legislation is brought to the floor of the House is so large and complex that it is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who has not labored in the halls of Congress for years. Fortunately, the Congressional Research Service provides the information necessary to help understand why this process can be scaled up to a much larger House relatively easily.
It might be imagined that, when proposed legislation is being considered on the floor of the House, hundreds of Representatives spend long hours, if not days, debating the proposal. However, the reality is quite the opposite: Typically, there are relatively few House members present for these “debates”, which themselves usually last an hour or less pursuant to House rules. These are not deliberations in any traditional sense. Instead, these are normally attempts to close the deal on largely preordained proposals, with the opposition (if any) granted a small amount of time to express their views, or possibly offer amendments.
The Ostensible Quorum
Though the Constitution requires that a quorum be present on the floor whenever the House transacts business, it is the practice of the House to merely assume that a quorum is present. Even when the House convenes a Committee of the Whole for the consideration of a bill, only 100 Representatives are required to be present to constitute a quorum! That is only 23% of the 435 member House. This is clearly not a “Committee of the Whole” in any traditional sense, and so it might as well be called a “Committee of 100”.
Furthermore, neither the Speaker nor the chair of the Committee of the Whole is empowered to take the initiative to ensure that a quorum is present. And at no time may the Speaker or the chair interrupt the proceedings on the floor because he or she observes that the necessary quorum is not present or because he or she decides to count those present to determine whether the applicable quorum requirement is being met. Instead, the Speaker or chair can only respond to an assertion that a Representative makes from the floor that a quorum is not present. And the only time that a Representative has a right to make such an assertion is when a vote is occurring! And, as a practical matter, a quorum is generally only required at the time that a recorded vote is taken, as opposed to a voice vote or a division vote. If a majority fails to respond to a quorum call or participate in an electronically recorded vote conducted in the House, the House must adjourn or take steps necessary to secure the attendance of enough Members to constitute a quorum.
The period allotted for taking a recorded vote is typically 15 minutes; however, on average it takes less time than that. Alternatively, the chairman can extend that time long enough to round up enough votes to meet the quorum requirement. If we assume that a quorum occurs only when a roll call vote occurs, and if further we assume that the average roll call vote takes 15 minutes, then it possible to calculate the percentage of time that a quorum occurs while the House is in session. For the 116th Congress, a quorum was present for approximately 7.5% of the time that they were in session.
Therefore, at any given time during debate on a bill, it is likely that the only Representatives present are members of the relevant committees and any other House members who may have a particular interest in the matter under consideration. The Representatives who are not present during the floor debates are likely participating in unrelated committee work, meeting with constituents, or engaged in political activities or fundraising. However, there is an internal television system where the Representatives or their staffs can monitor the floor debates.
The Ostensible Debates
Also relevant to the question of scalability is the amount of time the House spends “debating” these bills. As it turns out, the maximum amount of time that is usually allocated to debating a bill before taking a vote it is no more than 60 minutes, or occasionally two hours, depending on which method is used to bring the bill to the floor. In fact, a majority of the bills are considered under a procedure called “suspension of the rules,” which limits debate to 40 minutes (though it is rare for that much time to be used) and prohibits floor amendments. Though this process requires two-thirds of members to agree, those voting Representatives do not have to be present until they are summoned to vote.
Many other bills are considered under a procedural setting called the “Committee of the Whole” which, as mentioned earlier, may consist of only 100 House members (though verification of a quorum is not required). In the Committee of the Whole, the period for general debate is routinely limited to an hour. And debate on amendments in Committee of the Whole is governed by the five-minute rule (not the hour rule that regulates debate in the House). After this process is complete, the Committee of the Whole makes a report to the full House (whatever that means in practice) which is then usually approved by a voice vote.
Most of the other legislative debates conducted in the House (other than in the Committee of the Whole) is usually subject to the “one hour rule”, wherein the Speaker recognizes the majority floor manager to control the first hour of debate. At the end of that hour, if the House is not ready to vote for the bill, then the opponents of the bill are granted control the second hour of debate (during which time they might try to amend the measure).
Obviously, in so little time, 435 Representatives (plus the non-voting members) are not actually deliberating on these bills in any traditional sense. Instead, and oversimplifying somewhat, what typically happens is that the bill is advocated for by the chair of the committee which brought it to the floor, and the minority committee member is given time to express their opposition to it, with a relatively small number of other Representatives present. That’s it. This is nothing like the great debates of yore, such as the one pertaining to the Missouri Compromise (which raged for a year). Instead, this is usually a perfunctory and predictable process with so little drama that C-Span is forever assured of having very few viewers.
A Small House is a Dysfunctional House
None of the forgoing is intended as a criticism of how the legislative process is currently implemented in the House. As imperfect as it is, this process may be the best solution under the circumstances, as it is the inevitable result of having a grossly undermanned national legislature comprised of members who must spend most of their time working towards their own reelection while endeavoring to be responsive to hundreds of thousands of constituents.
Relative to our undersized House, it is also important to understand that the governing oligarchy can actually be much smaller than it appears: Because only a majority of a quorum is required to pass legislation, in a House of 435 Representatives, as few as 110 Representatives could pass legislation which affects over 300 million Americans! And that number could be even smaller if there were any vacancies in the House. If, for example, there were 100 vacancies (due to a terroristic or wartime act), then as few as 85 Representatives could decide the fate of over 300 million Americans. Having so much power in the hands of so few could create a very perilous situation for our nation.
In order for the US House of Representatives to function properly, and produce better results, we clearly need a much larger House comprised of members who can devote the necessary time to their congressional duties, and who are fully accountable to their constituents.
Enlarging the House
How could the enlargement of our representation be accomplished? This raises two questions. First, how could this be accomplished legally? And second, how could this be implemented in practice? The latter question is addressed in this section.
Thirty-Thousand.org advocates for the maximum House size permitted by the Constitution, which is “one for every thirty Thousand” hence, the name of our organization. We further advocate that the size of the House should be no smaller than that prescribed by the intended version of Article the first which is that it “not be less … than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” If Article the first had been proposed to the states in its intended form, it would have been ratified, and today the average congressional district size would be between 30,000 and 50,000 people.
Though Thirty-Thousand.org believes that the smaller the average district size, the better will be the quality of our representation, for the purpose of visualizing how this enlargement could be implemented, this illustration is predicated on an eventual target size of 47,000 people per Representative.
The next question is how much time should be allowed to phase in this representation? The process by which bills may come to the House floor, and how they may be deliberated upon, is governed by a byzantine set of standing rules which has evolved for over two centuries. As the House grows to its intended size, many of these rules and parliamentary procedures will gradually be revamped or replaced to accommodate a growing assembly comprised largely of members working from their home districts. In addition, the secured collaboration and voting technology will also have to be tested and refined as the number of Representatives is increased. Therefore, it would be prudent to allow several years for the House to reach its intended size.
Shown below is a very conservative scenario which assumes that the size of the House remains at 435 voting members through 2030 (the 121st Congress). The elections in November of 2030 would then increase the total number of Representatives to 1,000 for the 122nd Congress (apportioned according to the 2020 population census). Thereafter, the number of Representatives would be increased by a thousand every two years, as illustrated by the stairway chart below.
Under this proposal, the 123rd Congress would therefore have 2,000 Representatives (which would be apportioned to the states according to the 2030 population census). And the 124th Congress would have 3,000 Representatives, and so forth. This biennial increase of 1,000 Representatives continues until the size of the House reaches one Representative for every 47,000 people (in this example) which, based on 2040’s projected population, would result in nearly 8,000 Representatives by the year 2045. Thereafter, the total number of Representatives would be determined in the usual manner based upon the subsequent decennial population censuses.
By implementing this expansion over a period of years, it would not only enable Congress to adapt its rules, procedures and technology, but it would also allow time for communities to identify credible candidates qualified to represent them in a larger House. Many of these additional candidates may already have legislative experience as a result of having previously served in the House, or in one of the states’ governments or legislatures, or in the assemblies of city governments, townships or other local municipalities. Given that there are over half a million elected officials nationwide, as well as thousands more who have previously served in office, there is no shortage of candidates who have prior experience relative to legislating or governing. In addition, there are thousands of experienced congressional staffers, and former staffers, who may aspire to serve in the House of Representatives. Their work experience in Congress could help prepare them to be effective parliamentarians in our national assembly.
That being said, we would rightfully expect the House of Representatives to also have a substantial number of members with no previous experience in government or politics. These would include, for example, businesspersons, farmers, attorneys, servicemen, union members, teachers, homemakers, clergy, law enforcement, activists, and retirees. Able to work from their home districts, there will be a nearly unlimited supply of patriotic citizens willing to serve their community in this way. These citizen legislators will ensure that the interests of the people are properly represented across the country.
With respect to the floor deliberations, and the necessary work of committees, a much larger House can be expected to continue to operate as it does now, with delegations present from each state. Therefore, the voting and speechmaking could continue in the same manner as it does now (though there could also be some virtual participation). The members present will be expected to give voice to the prevailing views from their state, or from whichever caucuses they have joined.
Closing Argument: The House is Scalable
As shown in this section, scaling up to a larger House will not adversely affect Congress’s ability to get things done, at least with respect to those essential things that truly need to get done (as opposed to less consequential acts such as renaming post offices). However, it will likely change the composition of some of the legislation that is passed. For example, in a much larger House, it stands to reason that the spending bills which are passed will be more narrowly focused, replacing the massively scoped “omnibus” bills that are currently being passed.
Relative to creating legislation and conducting investigations, virtually all the House’s work is done in their committees. And so, though the objection to a larger House is that it would become unwieldy, what is truly unwieldy is the tremendous committee workload assigned to most of the 435 Representatives. This is evident not only from the large number of committees that most Representatives work on, but also from the poor job Congress does in many of these areas. This latter point is not only manifestly obvious to many observers, but it was also identified as a key concern by congressional senior staffers, specifically: “Representatives lack the necessary time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate public policy and legislation”.
Consequently, the question of scalability of the House largely resolves down to the scalability of these committees and, given how severely undermanned they are, it is clearly evident that we need a much larger pool of Representatives from which to choose. Moreover, in a House of several thousand Representatives, there could still be several hundred members present in DC to not only work in the committees, but also to represent their states in any of these floor proceedings. Additional Representatives, working remotely in their home districts, could also participate virtually or, alternatively, through the DC-based delegation representing their state.
With respect to legislation being considered on the floor, the House in session is usually nothing more than a body that votes up or down on legislation that has been developed by one or more of its “little legislatures” and, through some combination of byzantine House rules, has been brought to the floor for a vote. And by the time that happens, the proposed legislation’s approval by the majority party (along with some members of the opposing party) has often been preordained, which is why most of the “debates” on proposed legislation are no longer than a few minutes. And because the presence of a quorum is merely assumed, there are usually very few Representatives actually present for these “debates”. As observed in one CRS Report:
“If a majority of all Representatives actually had to be in the chamber from the opening gavel to the adjournment of each daily session, it would become practically impossible for Members to satisfy all their various responsibilities and for the House to do its work in a timely fashion.”
As it turns out, not only is a majority of the Representatives not “in the chamber from the opening gavel to the adjournment of each daily session”, a majority is rarely present at all! And the reference to the Representatives’ “various responsibilities” euphemistically includes the tremendous amount of time they spend fundraising and campaigning.
Therefore, given how few members of the House are present during these short floor “debates” on the bills under consideration, it stands to reason that in a much larger House, this same process would work just as well. And just as the Representatives are said to be monitoring these debates in their congressional offices, on their internal TV system, they could certainly do so just as well from their home districts.
A larger House of six to ten thousand will be, in effect, a virtual plebiscite which votes on legislation proposed by the various committees. To some, that may seem like a large number to vote on legislation, but it only seems large because we have become accustomed to there being so few Representatives. It is worth noting, however, that having a very large number of people voting on legislation is not unprecedented in this country. In fact, it occurs regularly, and with far more people voting. Over 25 states have an initiative or referendum process which enables the voters to vote for or against proposed laws, or even amendments to their state’s constitution. Perhaps the best known of these is California’s ballot proposition system. In November of 2020, for example, over 17 million Californians had the opportunity to vote for or against 12 different legislative acts! If millions of Californians can act, in effect, as an ad hoc plebiscite, then it is certainly feasible to have a standing legislature of seven to ten thousand Representatives.
Though the notion of Representatives working remotely may seem unworkable, or even unconstitutional, the fact of the matter is that such a practice has already been established by the House. In May of 2020, the House voted to allow Representatives to proxy their votes and participate remotely in their committees. “The resolution authorizes House committees to hold virtual hearings, markups and depositions using software platforms certified by the chief administrative officer, the office in charge of cybersecurity and technology in the House.” Well over a hundred Representatives have, at times, proxied their vote.
While this change in rules demonstrates the viability of Representatives working remotely, it has the distinct drawback of utilizing proxies instead of enabling remote voting, which has the effect of eliminating even the remaining semblance of a quorum. Moreover, it would seem rather indolent if a Representative were to choose to proxy their vote rather than voting remotely. Worse yet, this practice could allow a few Representatives to amass enough proxies to wield a dangerously inordinate amount of power.
Given all the foregoing, there is no reason that the legislative process would not work just as well, if not better, in a House of 10,000 as it does in a House of 435. However, there is one big difference between the two: A House of 10,000 will represent the citizenry, whereas a House of only a few hundred largely represents the Special Interests and their own interests.
In the final analysis, in a much larger House, Americans will care very little about any speeches made by their Representatives relative to some bill under consideration. And they will care very little about the extent to which, or the manner in which, their Representative participated in those legislative proceedings. Instead, the people will mostly care about how their Representative voted on any legislation that affects them.
The numerous benefits of representational enlargement are explained in the other sections of this website.
© Thirty-Thousand.org [Article Updated 04/03/22]
National Geographic: “A Virtual Congress? America’s Founders Would Have Approved”