The following is an extract from Lesson 2 of An Introduction to the U.S. Congress. You can get the whole thing here: https://cffad.org/topic/#congress-part-1
Exactly how to make the change to representative democracy was a much-debated topic during the Constitutional Convention. There were three main issues, each drawn from the tensions we listed in Lesson 1:
- Last week – Should Congress derive its power from the people or from the state governments?
- This week – Should large states be balanced against small states?
- Next week – Should enslaved people be counted towards a state’s population?
Large versus small states: Some delegates from states with small populations feared the states with larger populations would dominate them. By contrast, some delegates from the large states believed their states should have more representation because their states would contribute more to the nation’s budget and defense. There was general agreement, however, that there should be a census every ten years to keep track of changes in state population sizes.
The delegates were presented with two competing proposals to solve the two problems. The Virginia Plan proposed the allocation of Congressional seats in the House and Senate should be proportional to state populations. States with large populations would have more seats than those with small populations. By contrast, the New Jersey Plan, favored by the smaller states, proposed equal representation for each state in just one legislative chamber.
The Great Compromise: The bicameral (two-chambered) Congress that we have today came from a compromise between the two competing plans. The framers set up a House of Representatives, where the allocation of seats is proportional to state populations, and a Senate, where each state has two senators. The delegates passed this plan by just one vote. These choices form the basis for Article 1 of the Constitution.
- Members of the House (representatives) are elected by citizens from their districts, with more House seats allocated to more populous states. They hold their seats for two years and then need to be reelected or move on to other things.
Members of the Senate (senators) used to be elected by their state legislatures. The Seventeenth Amendment changed that, so citizens of each state elect their senators. Senators serve for six years before having to be reelected or leave.
FOR REFLECTION: The debate over how to balance representation of the people and representation of the states was deeply contentious. The proposed compromise almost failed: out of 10 state delegations voting, five voted in favor, four against, and one (Massachusetts) was divided.
Since then, the population has grown, but the House has not kept up. The number of people per representative has increased far beyond the 30,000 the framers required in Article 1, Section 2.
In addition, the number of states has grown, and the population shares within each state have shifted – due to the elimination of the three-fifths rule by the Fourteenth Amendment, urbanization, new waves of immigrants, and several internal migrations.
Small states far outnumber the large in the Senate, but a few large states outweigh the smaller states in the House. Voting patterns in large versus small states, which used to be somewhat similar, have diverged too, particularly from 2015 onward.
Is it time to revisit the way Congress is set up? How would your position change if you supported a different political party?
- Congress rarely adhered to Article 1, Section 2 which required no more than 30,000 people per House representative. In 1929, Congress limited the House to 435 members.
- Author’s analysis of data provided by VoteView.com.
- Under the original Virginia Plan, the largest states would have the most seats in each chamber – but representatives in one chamber would be elected by citizens (the House) and by state legislatures in the other (the Senate). https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/virginia-plan
- The authors of the New Jersey Plan wanted to be consistent with the preceding Articles of Confederation that had set up a national legislature with just one chamber (a unicameral Congress).