Study Guide

Legislative Branch (Congress) - House of Representatives

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House of Representatives

  • House consists of 435 members, all serving two-year terms
  • Founding Fathers intended House of Representatives to be very responsive to shifts in the public mood
  • But gerrymandering has created many "safe" seats for congressmen almost certain to win reelection, no matter what
  • House members are elected by single-member district voting

The framers of the Constitution designed the House of Representatives to be the most democratic body of the national government, as responsive as possible to the popular will. Compared to senators, members of the House represent smaller numbers of voters and serve shorter terms. The framers' idea was to make congressmen more accountable to voters, and thus more representative of public opinion at any particular moment in time.

The Constitution does not set the size of the House, but it does require that each state's representation be proportionate to its population. The First Congress, elected in 1788, included just 65 members of the House. As the country expanded and new states entered the Union throughout the nineteenth century, the House grew larger and larger. By 1912, the House had grown to nearly seven times its original size, with 435 members representing the 48 states that existed at the time.

Allowing the House to continue to expand at such a pace would soon make it impossible for the huge chamber to conduct business efficiently, so Congress agreed to cap House membership at 435 seats. Keeping the number of seats steady at 435 requires that one state's gains in representation be offset by taking seats away from another state. In recent years, for example, rapidly growing states in the South and West have gained dozens of seats, while states in the Northeast and Midwest that are losing population have also lost representation in Congress.

The Reapportionment Act of 1929 set up an automatic system to conduct the politically sensitive process of taking seats away from some states while giving them to others, while ensuring that each state receives representation proportional to its population within a 435-seat House of Representatives. The act requires the Census Bureau to allocate seats fairly among the states following each national census, which occurs every ten years.

While the Census Bureau now determines how many seats each state receives in the House, the states remain in charge of drawing the boundaries of congressional districts within their own borders. Since 1842, Congress has required congressional elections to be conducted on a single-member district basis. That means that each congressman is elected as the representative of a single voting district, winning office by receiving the most votes cast by the citizens of that district. (Before 1842, some states used another system, called general-ticket voting, that allowed the party that received the most votes statewide to fill all the state's congressional seats. But that system struck most people as terribly unfair—a party that won 51% of the vote would control 100% of the House seats—and so Congress banned the practice in 1842.)

When it passed the law requiring single-member elections, Congress also created some vague rules for drawing the boundaries of congressional districts; each state's voting districts were supposed to be geographically contiguous, compact in shape, and roughly equal in population.

But those rules were pretty loose and subjective, which opened the door for state politicians to pull all kinds of shenanigans in drawing district boundaries for partisan gain. This is known as gerrymandering—the manipulation of the boundaries of congressional districts to serve the interests of the political party drawing the boundaries. (The odd-sounding name comes from founding father Elbridge Gerry, who was serving as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when he drew up the state's legislative districts to favor his own Democratic-Republican Party. Gerry's critics thought that one of the resulting districts, a snakelike creation stretching northeast from Boston, looked like a salamander—a monstrous creation they called a "Gerrymander." Unfortunately for Elbridge Gerry's place in history, the name stuck.)

Gerrymandering can involve drawing boundaries that concentrate opposition voters into just a few districts, leaving the rest safe for the other party. Or it can involve drawing boundaries that spread opposition voters out thinly across several districts, making it impossible for the opposition party to build a majority anywhere. Either way, the idea of gerrymandering is clear: to help the dominant party gain an unfair advantage in congressional representation by crippling the opposition's ability to compete.

In recent decades, the Supreme Court has cracked down on gerrymandering—sort of. It is now illegal to gerrymander solely on the basis of race or to create congressional districts of wildly varying populations within the same state. But those rules remain somewhat vague, and most congressional districts nationwide now reflect at least a degree of gerrymandering. One perverse effect of widespread gerrymandering has been the demise of many competitive congressional districts. The framers of the Constitution intended the House of Representatives to be extremely sensitive to the public mood, with congressmen subject to sharply contested elections every two years and the congressional membership subject to high turnover. However, decades of gerrymandering have made most of the country's congressional seats "safe" for one party or the other. Today, in any given congressional election, there are typically fewer than 100 competitive elections for House seats nationwide, versus more than 300 seats all but guaranteed not to change hands from one party to the other. Gerrymandering has left the House a much less democratic institution than the founding fathers intended it to be.

While many House elections are no longer as competitive as the Constitution's framers might have liked, they still occur every two years in all 435 congressional districts, from sea to shining sea. Every even-numbered year, always on a Tuesday in early November, every single member of the House of Representatives has to face his or her voters. Every two years, the people get their chance to reward their congressman with another term—or punish him for failing to meet their expectations.

Want to become a congressman or congresswoman? Go for it! The Constitution sets only three formal requirements for service in the House: You need to be at least 25 years old, you need to have been a US citizen for at least seven years, and you need to live in the state you want to represent in Congress. That's it.

Of course, the voters in your district may want to see more than that on your resume. Informal qualifications for office typically include some combination of accomplishments, charisma, wealth (or at least skill in fundraising), and relevant life experience. If you've got that winning combination and can prove it by winning more votes than anybody else in your district, membership in an exclusive club awaits. As one of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, you'll pull down a nice salary of almost $170,000 a year, plus a sweet package of benefits—special tax deductions, housing and travel allowances, cheap healthcare, a great pension, even free parking and free mail. Not to mention the greatest fringe benefit of all: a great deal of power to shape the world you live in.

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