- Historic Sites
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, however, America was transformed into an urbanized industrial state and world power, with a new perspective on political needs. Particularly after the great depression of 1929 the nation came to demand greater involvement of the federal government in problems that earlier had been left to the states or the private sector for resolution. From 1933 onward Congress delegated greater and greater authority to the executive, primarily for reasons of efficiency and control. As the complexities of government increased, as America moved rapidly from crisis to crisis—whether at home or abroad—it seemed sensible to avoid the delays that congressional action would necessarily entail and to give the President the power to act swiftly and often alone. By the 1970’s legislative and policy initiatives were well established in his hands.
That transfer of initiative, innocently begun, was aided by the byzantine rules and the committee systems under which both houses continued to operate even as the world changed around them. Keyed to the slower pace of the nineteenth century, placing extraordinary power in the hands of committee chairmen, rewarding seniority (in some cases at the expense of expertise), the parliamentary procedures in the Senate and the House have been subjected to a half century of criticism both inside and out of Congress but thus far have escaped significant change. Virtually every major reform has been voted down, and attempts at modernization have dragged on for years. The House, for example, did not turn to electronic voting—speeding roll-call votes by as much as thirty minutes—until 1973.
Additionally, Congress lacks a clear identity. Unlike the Presidency or the Supreme Court, the national legislature is not easily reduced to a type or personality. Five hundred and thirty-five members strong, it is a complex, complicated instrument of government, comprising both hardworking, dedicated public servants and timeserving incompetents. It is by turns high-minded and serious, frivolous and profligate, protective of its constituencies and submissive to special interests. It has produced statesmen of the order of Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams and racists like Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. It has sometimes been insensitive to the needs and aspirations of minority groups throughout our history; yet it has also enlarged the meaning of due process and democratic government by writing all twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution, beginning with the Bill of Rights.
Congress has also been too long ignored. Much of its work is dull routine, lacking the inherent glamor of Presidential decision making and generally unsuited to the short visual coverage of television news, on which more than 60 per cent of the American public now relies for its primary information about political affairs. As recently as five years ago only a half dozen journalists were assigned exclusively to Capitol Hill, and one of them was from England’s Manchester Guardian . The result has been that Congress has not had the public exposure that might force it to assume the major role the Founding Fathers intended it to play.
Herewith some highlights and details.
• Initially the Constitution called for one representative for every 30,000 persons in the nation. In practice the first House, totalling sixty-five members, averaged one representative for every 33,000 persons.
• By 1840, when House membership reached 232, there was one representative for every 71,000 persons. In 1940 the ratio was one to 303,000 and in 1960, one to 400,000.
• The current ratio is roughly one representative to each 490,000 persons, or approximately a fifteenfold increase over 1789.
• At the present time ten states account for 55 per cent of the membership in the House. California, with 43 representatives, has the largest delegation. New York is second with 39.
• Six states (Alaska, Nevada, Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Delaware) have one representative each.
• Eight states (Hawaii, Utah, Idaho, Maine, Montana, South Dakota, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire) each have two representatives.
• Beginning in 1970 overseas personnel in military and government service and their dependents were counted for reapportionment purposes. As a result Oklahoma retained one seat that otherwise might have been lost.