The US House of Representatives consists of 435 members; the UK parliament has 650 members; the Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad has 300 members, etc.

Why so many people? Anyone who's, e.g., tried to arrange a place & time for a gathering knows that the more people there are involved, the harder it is to make a decision. It's not just harder to get people to agree, it's also more time-consuming. Further, with 300+ members of parliament, if every one of them were given a chance to speak, even if they only spoke for five minutes, it would still take >1500 minutes (= 25 hours!) to complete. It seems much more logical to have, say, 10 people in parliament.

  • Why do most countries have so many MPs? Hundreds seems to be the norm.
  • Are there any examples of countries that used to have hundreds of MPs, but have drastically reduced the number of MPs to the tens?
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    could be just my projected psychology, but "10", rather than tens, sounds much more like the government than my representative, i.e. at some point such a small committee is unconvincing as representing a region/district, distinct from the government, which is what parliament members are supposed to be doing for their constituents. Feb 18, 2020 at 6:41
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    Making it more difficult, and slower, to get things done in a legislature is often regarded as a feature, not a bug. Legislation can have a major impact on people's lives, so it's generally worth taking some time over it. Feb 18, 2020 at 9:09
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    I don't see any reason not to include Senators here, bringing the US number to 535, and to be technically correct the UK House of Commons has 650, and the UK Parliament 1,443. Feb 18, 2020 at 22:39
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    foremost - the difficulty of arranging meetings is way lower if you consider that said meetings are the main task of parliamentarians
    – eagle275
    Feb 19, 2020 at 16:36
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    I'd ask why so few: in the US, the House was capped at 435 members in 1911, when the population was ~92 million. The estimated population is now ~330 million, Each member represents roughly (depending on the state) between 530,000 and 995,000 people. There are countries who, at that level of representation, would have single-member parliaments. Iceland, to pick an example, has one representative per ~5700 people.
    – chepner
    Feb 20, 2020 at 22:10

12 Answers 12



The real work isn't done in plenary session. It isn't even done in the subcommittees. It is done preparing for the subcommittees.

One of the key tasks of most parliaments is to decide on taxes and a budget. That's thousands of pages, which should be understood line by line by someone. But nobody can understand the details of the science budget, and the defense budget, and the health budget, and corporate taxes, and so on.

So the agriculture subcommittee prepares a slice of the budget and submits it to the budget subcommittee, etc.

To make that work, each subcommittee must be staffed by a representative section of the parliament and each representative can only be in a few subcommittees.

  • 5
    this is regional, not all countries work like that.
    – jwenting
    Feb 18, 2020 at 8:38
  • 31
    @jwentig While the example maybe regional the general idea is about right. Representatives do much more work than casting a vote from time to time. If you had a parliament of 20 members you'd actually end with about the same 300 people, only they wouldn't be elected but hired.
    – Rekesoft
    Feb 18, 2020 at 12:39
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    @Rekesoft "Representatives do much more work than casting a vote from time to time." I think 50% of public disillusionment with politics comes from citizens not understanding this. (the other 50% is corruption)
    – xLeitix
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:36
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    @xLeitix I think the disillusionment with politics comes from politicians not understanding this and simply voting as they're told by their party leadership rather than thinking for themselves.
    – jwenting
    Feb 19, 2020 at 4:32
  • @jwenting which likely won't change 'til there's law giving each candidate a set amount of federal/state campaign $ and it's not allowed to spend more than that on things like ads for/against people, etc. -- people do what the leadership says otherwise the leadership will get them primaried/etc.
    – TylerH
    Feb 21, 2020 at 8:44

The intention behind any parliamentary structure is to provide accurate representation of the citizenry as a whole. The general (historical) implementation is to divide the nation up into districts, wards, parishes, or the like, and allow each district to have a voice in the parliament. It is assumed that districts — if they are well-designed, and sufficiently small — will accurately reflect local concerns and interests, so that these local concerns and interests will be heard in parliament through the representative. There is a playoff between the efficacy of representation and the efficacy of parliament as a whole: the smaller the number of constituents in a district, the better the representation, but the greater the number of members of parliament (with all the problems that entails). But however one balances that, nations with large populations are forced to have large parliamentary bodies to have any hope of proper representation at all.

Of course, there are other considerations. For instance, the US Senate is a parliamentary body, but it is meant to represent the interest of US States, opposed to the interests of US citizens, and so has a smaller number of representatives. Political tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression can can expand the influence of some groups while diminishing the power of others, destroying the representativeness of the parliamentary body. Some systems try to balance out inequities and unfairnesses by adding extra members to represent minority parties or positions (e.g., proportional representation). There are a lot of different tricks and nuances in systems around the world, but as a general rule any effort to make a system more representative of the citizenry is going to increase the number of members of parliament.

It's an old saw in political science that if one wants a just society one has to surrender to having an inefficient society. Autocrats and dictators are efficient, but that's not always a compliment; Hitler made the trains run on time, but then he used those trains to commit world war and genocide. Representative democracy is slow, contentious, and aggravating — a constant "two steps forward and one step back" affair — but in the long run it grinds its way through to reasonable, moral outcomes. Ten people might be an efficient-sized group to rule a nation, but it is pragmatically and statistically impossible to select a group of ten people who are representative of the nation's population as a whole, so their decisions will not reflect the interests of their populace.

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    This is the best answer. It gets to the heart of how the size of parliaments reflects their mission. Feb 18, 2020 at 21:33
  • This is a great answer. Another advantage to a larger corpus of representatives is that it makes it harder to "whip", ie to make conform to the party line, and that means when trying to convince parliament as a whole to vote the way you want them to, you must make appeals to reason and morality, rather than pure partisanship, and this (in theory at least) makes for better decision-making. Feb 20, 2020 at 15:11
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    As a note on the US Senate: it was originally formed to represent the interests of the states themselves, with the Senators being appointed by each state's government. Once the Senators became elected positions through popular vote, it removed any direct input by the states to the federal government. Feb 20, 2020 at 15:50
  • @MichaelRichardson: I don't think that's quite true. Since senators are elected by the entirety of the populace of a state, that makes them (perhaps) the best representative for the interests of the state (thought of as the aggregate of its population). If senator is merely appointed by the state government, he more closely represents the interests of the people who appoint him in the state government, not of the state itself. I know there's a tendency to treat incorporated bodies as fictional individuals in the modern world, but that's a fiction we should all be wary of. Feb 20, 2020 at 16:21
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    @blues Strike Germany from that list. While a party list needs to gain 5 % of the vote share, an individual candidate need only get a majority in their constituency. Independent candidates have run and are running all the time although they don’t tend to be successful. On the other hand, in 1998 two candidates of the then-PDS were directly elected in their districts even though the party as a whole failed to clear the 5 % threshold nationwide. (Had a third candidate been elected in a third district, the PDS would have joined parliament anyway, see Grundmandatsklausel.)
    – Jan
    Feb 21, 2020 at 5:31

A parliament with a dozen or so members is a cabinet. You're effectively deleting the parliament completely and going with a government that consists of a single body: the cabinet, without any checks and balances introduced by parliamentary oversight.

It also (as mentioned already) removes any idea of influence over policy making that less populated regions of the country may have had when they had representatives in said parliament, as they're now completely without representation, as the only votes that matter are those in the most populated parts of the country (usually a few large cities).

That situation creates a lot of resentment in rural areas, and can well lead to rebellion.

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    @Blueriver They didn't, but it's the logical consequence of having very few members.
    – JS Lavertu
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:47
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    @Blueriver I don't mean literally deleting the parliament. It's just that the checks and balances that come with a parliament pretty much require a large number of members. It's not too hard to convince a handful of people to follow some "bad" idea, but much harder to convince several dozens. In a system where there's only 10 members, 5 people represents half the power, but if you have 500 members, it's only 1%. The amount of people a bad actor needs to influence is MUCH higher than can done effectively (and secretly).
    – JS Lavertu
    Feb 18, 2020 at 16:01
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    Why would a parliament with only 10 members mean that less populated regions of the country have no representatives? For example, to shrink the UK parliament down to 10 people, the simplest way would be to divide the country into ten pieces each with the same amount of population, and have each piece elect one representative.
    – Allure
    Feb 19, 2020 at 4:37
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    @Allure why would one of the MPs focus on the needs of those in the unpopulated areas if it makes no difference to their future? The number of the people in the urban areas would easily outvote those in the rural areas.
    – Tim
    Feb 19, 2020 at 7:19
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    @Allure in that case you’ve either got one MP for a huge land area, with diverse needs (hint: Scotland and Wales are both sparsely populated, but have very different views, voting trends, language, etc) or you have a mixture of urban and rural in one constituency, which causes a focus on the urban.
    – Tim
    Feb 19, 2020 at 10:49

"Why so many people?"

Is it many? For two of the examples you give (Bangladesh and the US), it is around 600 000 inhabitants per seat.

Even the smallest of micro states still manage to put 7 people in the houses.


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    Indeed. If we used the historical precedent of 35,000 citizens per seat, we would have an enormous Congress, and possibly better gov't. Feb 18, 2020 at 18:43
  • @LawnmowerMan Or multiple governments. Just sayin' :P
    – Luaan
    Feb 21, 2020 at 12:42

One of the reasons is to be able to divide the votes, The Netherlands for example is horribly fractured. It currently has 15 parties and during the election there were 28 competing.

If your idea of a 10 man parliament would come in then less then half of the current parties would be part of the parliament. With about 1/3 of the votes disappearing in the trash can. Besides that people often want somebody from their own area to be part of the parliament. If in the Netherlands all parliament members were native South-Holland and none from the other 11 provinces you will start having issues with proper representation. This is because even in a country as small as mine the differences are massive between the provinces.

Another idea of this "by the numbers" approach is that the more members parliament has the less chance there is of them all being corrupted/bribed. That's why you will mostly see parliaments in the 10's in nations where the corruption is high (or where the population is low).

Further, with 300+ members of parliament, if every one of them were given a chance to speak, even if they only spoke for five minutes, it would still take >1500 minutes (= 25 hours!) to complete.

Most people usually don't even speak in the parliament, they are just there to vote while a more silver-tongued member of the party speaks on behalf of its entire party. When it comes to part

Edit: The Following concerns info about the comment Itamar Mushkin made.

The Netherlands has 150 seats so a government has to be formed by a coalition of parties having a total of 76+ seats. The current polls have the following outcome:

  • VVD 20
  • PVV 19
  • PvdA 18
  • FvD 16
  • CDA 14
  • D66 13
  • Gl 12
  • SP 9
  • 50+ 9
  • PvdD 6
  • CU 6
  • SGP4
  • DENK 3

So the 4 largest parties and 1 other random party is needed to form the coalition, now here are the problems.

  • PVV and FvD don't want to form a coalition with the VVD due to them being pro-EU and having made budget cuts on healthcare. (Also some bad history there)
  • PvdA, D66, GL and PvdD don't want to form a coalition with PVV or FvD because they are considering them "Right wing Extremists". And they are also not keen on forming one with the VVD.
    • SGP only finds support from CU and CDA due to them being conservative Christians.
    • And Nobody wants to work with DENK because they can barely be called a Dutch party due to them openly supporting foreign governments over the Dutch one.

So the most realistic possibility would be VVD, PvdA, CDA, D66 and GL but we already currently have such a government and it is failing. (Massive protests and an approval rating in the low 30's)

Namely a broad coalition, with our current one being VVD, CDA, CU and D66 who had 76 seats together but according to current polls only have 53 (almost a 1/3 loss). This is because they had to make concessions due to their differences.

A few examples:

  • D66 supports euthanasia, CU and CDA are Christian parties that see that as suicide (and therefor a sin).
  • D66 wants to take in more refugees and pay more towards the EU, VVD which is an economic party wants the opposite.
  • D66 is more open to Islam while the other 3 are not.

And the list goes on like this for a while, and you could say that D66 is the problem here (which is true) but the point is that the other parties weren't large enough, have bad blood with the VVD or are even more left wing then the D66.

Until a coalition is formed our government works chaotic and can even lead to new elections with probably similar results.

And on a side note, VVD is called a party killer. Every party that ever formed a coalition with them had massive losses the next election. This is because VVD (although they are declining rapidly now) has been one of the biggest the last few elections forcing it's coalition partners to make decisions that are unpopular with their voters.

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    @ItamarMushkin to summarise: the seat distribution distribution combined with fundamental differences in ideology between the largest parties makes it next to impossible to create a stable coalition government.
    – jwenting
    Feb 18, 2020 at 8:38
  • The problem with the VVD is even bigger. The other parties have also forced the VVD to take unpopular decisions, and even repeatedly so (as the VVD has been in power so long). VVD voters generally expect the VVD leaders to give in to the EU demands, again. That's why the VVD is not gaining from the losses of other parties.
    – MSalters
    Feb 18, 2020 at 16:41
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    @ItamarMushkin: A widely shared opinion is that many of those parties don't want to rule. PVV, FvD, GL, SP, 50+, PvdD and DENK are generally considered to be such parties, based on their observed behavior. (GL is an edge case, they dropped out of negotiations last time). As the answer shows, these poll at 74 seats combined. That only leaves you with 76 seats for parties that want to rule, just not with each other. With a 150 seats total, 76 is the absolute minimum so with the current polls it is impossible to form a majority government.
    – MSalters
    Feb 18, 2020 at 16:46
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    @gerrit just checking the numbers, almost every party in the list (except DENK and SGP) got 6 seats (4%) or above - so even a 4% threshold won't change the picture much. and 4% is not low (my country, Israel recently increased it to 3.25% - with bad consequences). and 10% is huge, what country has that? Feb 19, 2020 at 7:46
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    @ItamarMushkin Netherlands has 0.67% which is low, Turkey has 10%. At the last elections, 7 parties had more than 4%, 6 parties between 0.67% and 4%, and 15 less than 0.67%. Parliament would still be fractured with a higher threshold; but this answer is wrong because most parliaments are larger AND have higher thresholds. Parliaments are not large to accommodate small parties as usually small parties are kept out by design.
    – gerrit
    Feb 19, 2020 at 9:21

Sometimes parliaments grow over time. Here in Germany, the parliament ("Bundestag") is supposed to have 598 members (for ~80 million people). However, we have a special voting system where some MPs are elected as direct candidates in each district by a majority vote ("first vote") but the overall composition of the parliament is determined by a proportional representation of the second vote, adding another batch of MPs.

This systems gives a lot more directly elected to the big parties than they would receive according to the second vote. These seats are called overhang seats. This alone already gives some additional seats in the parliament. However, some years ago it was ruled that is is not legal to have an overhang. Rather than reforming the voting system such that an overhang can no longer occur, the parliament voted for job-securing[A] full compensation of overhang seats to the other parties, resulting in a total of 709 seats in the current legislation period. With the decreasing importance of bigger parties, this problem is likely to get even worse.

[A] I know this sounds a bit snarky but it is probably a part of the truth why parliaments are growing and rarely shrinking on reforms. There is simply no incentive for the members of a parliament to make a reform that makes a lot of them lose their jobs.

  • same reason parliament in the Netherlands rarely votes against the cabinet, as the elections resulting from a vote of no confidence would cause a lot of them to lose their very well paid jobs.
    – jwenting
    Feb 19, 2020 at 4:36
  • You could probably say the same of the reduction of the UK parliament from 650 to 600 MPs, which was proposed in 2010 and the ever expanding House of Lords stuffed with ex MPs.
    – Jontia
    Feb 20, 2020 at 15:03
  • Fun fact: the norm size of the Bundestag was reduced from 650 to 598 members between the 1998 and the 2002 elections. Second fun fact: the current system of full compensation was born recently after overhang went uncompensated for decades and the Federal Constitutional Court saw the integrity of proportional vote endangered. 2002 certainly still saw fully uncompensated overhang.
    – Jan
    Feb 21, 2020 at 5:39

A German perspective

Germany has an unusually large Parliament, with currently 709 members in the Bundestag (lower house), the largest national Parliament chamber in the world. The number of members is variable due to overhang and leveling seats. There are 299 electoral districts. In a district-based first-past-the-post system, that would mean 299 seats, which is not huge for a country like Germany. But then there are also at least another 299 overhang and leveling seats. Those seats are distributed to make the total number of seats close to proportional, to a total of 598 seats. But if with 598 seats, there is still insufficient proportionality, they keep adding seats until it is proportional. The more fractured the election, the larger the number of seats. Fracturing has been increasing:

  • 2002-2005: 603 seats
  • 2005-2009: 614 seats
  • 2009-2013: 622 seats
  • 2013-2017: 631 seats
  • 2017-2021: 709 seats

One solution would be to have less districts. A party that is regionally strong and benefits from many district seats will oppose this. Another solution is to have less compensation seats. This disadvantages parties that get a smaller amount of the vote more equally nationally distributed. A cross-party committee is trying to work out a compromise, for most agree that 709 members is too many.

A cynical interpretation

Essentially, Parliament decides the size of Parliament. If Parliament decides to decrease the size of Parliament, members of Parliament are more likely to lose their job. Therefore, Parliament is unlikely to decide to reduce the size of Parliament.

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    "the largest national Parliament chamber in the world": that's not true. You could, however, say that it's the largest lower house of any democratic country, which rules out the EU (not a country) (751), China (not a democracy) (2980), and the UK House of Lords (not a lower house) (793). Feb 18, 2020 at 22:17
  • fracturing is not a sufficent explanation if you notice that it has constantly increased.
    – Tom
    Feb 18, 2020 at 23:08
  • @Tom and Gerrit: Nice cherry-picking of the numbers because the norm size went down to 598 from 650 in 2002. Furthermore, the answer does not state that overhang was not compensated until the 2013 election. Finally, it is not correct calling the second set of 299 regular seats ‘overhang and levelling seats’. Overhang seats are only those directly elected candidates that surpass what a party should get as a fraction of 598 and levelling seats are only those that level the surpassing overhang seats.
    – Jan
    Feb 21, 2020 at 5:44
  • @Jan I just took the numbers from Wikipedia. I was not aware it went down in 2002, so the cherry picking was not on purpose on my side. I admit that the details of overhang and levelling seats are beyond my knowledge.
    – gerrit
    Feb 21, 2020 at 8:31
  • Overhang seats are only loosely connected to fracturing. The real driver for overhang seats is the ratio between fraction of the direct (FPTP) mandates to fraction of secondary (proportional) votes among the patries that took the 5 % hurdle. The highest such ratio for any party determines how many seats are needed to keep proportionality. As soon as that ratio is > 598/299 = 2 for any party, overhang seats are needed to satisfy both proportionality and the direct election results. Currently CSU with a ratio of 2.37 determines the size of the Bundestag (closely followed by CDU with 2.19). Feb 22, 2020 at 13:00

Members of parliament are also the representatives of the population in their constituencies, as a last resort for dealing with their individual problems.

Historically, transportation imposed a practical limit to the size of geographical area which one individual could "represent." With modern communication methods that may no longer apply, but there is still a limit to the workload that "one representative" can handle, since it is likely to involve interaction with government ministers, etc.

A recent high profile example in the UK would be the death of Harry Dunn, allegedly involving a car driven by the wife of a US government employee, but MPs deal with many lower-level issues.


The United States of America is a Federation of States. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, aren't

This means that, for example, the UK Houses of Parliament are roughly analogous to both the US Congress, and the individual Legislatures of each State Government. As such, you are currently ignoring quite a lot of people on the USA side of things:

              │ Lower House │ Upper House │ Total 
USA Congress  │      435    │      100    │   535 
USA States    │     5411    │     1971    │  7382 
USA Total     │     5846    │     2071    │  7917 
UK Parliament │      650    │      793    │  1443 

The population of the UK is about 66 million, and the population of the USA is about 327 million - so the USA has about 5 times the population of the UK, and about 5.5 times the Legislature, to go with about 40 times the landmass.

(Note that due to a quirk of how the UK Parliament formed, it is the only bicameral government in the world where the Upper House has more members than the Lower House)

If you also include the UK Devolved Governments of the Scottish Parliament (129 members), National Assembly for Wales (60 members), and Northern Ireland Assembly (90 members or 0 members, depending on how much they're arguing) to make it 7917 vs 1722, then this would mean the US Government is only ~4.6 times the size of the UK one

  • You probably should include the devolved governments in your table. As the last paragraph suggests they are a better balance with the State governments you've listed for the US. I assume both places have city/county councils so I wouldn't take it down another level.
    – Jontia
    Feb 21, 2020 at 13:25
  • The UK House of Lords has recently had its ranks reduced greatly to 75 voting members IIRC.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 20, 2020 at 22:12

There are two reasons, both really simple.

The first is that you want to represent all relevant interests in the country, including minorities. Not just political positions - ideally you want someone in parliament who is a single mother, someone who is gay, someone who is a farmer - at least one or a few people from every possible religion, profession, education, etc. etc. -- and you just need lots of people to have a reasonable chance to get a representative distribution.

The second reason is also why #1 doesn't actually work: Career politicians. Not just are most politicians lawyers, teachers or one of a small set of jobs that aren't actually nearly that common in the population, being a politician as a profession also means that all these people need jobs - the larger the parliament, the more politicians have a job. Who makes the rules that govern the size of the parliament? The very politicians who profit from them. If that's not a conflict of interest, I don't know what is.

Some parliaments have a 3rd reason, namely that they are "working parliaments", i.e. they don't just vote, but also work on issues, prepare laws, check on the government, etc. - other parliaments have this work done not by parliamentarians but by their staff. They could get the same work done with fewer politicians and more staff.


Running the entire country and voting for it's administration decisions takes a lot of work, so a lot of employees is efficient, and electing them is representative. Individual parliamentarians are contingent for local issues like trade fairs, shopping centers, water leaks, everything local, which may benefit from national attention and national money, as well as responsible for national legislation.

The votes adhere to democratic mathematics of majority regardless of the number of parliamentarians.

So a parliament can logically employ as many local representatives as would be employed by a large company that runs affairs nationally, for example an insurance company with 500 employees... same attribution of labour, different employment rules.


Not directly an answer to the second bullet point in the OP, but closely related: Italy votes to slash size of parliament by a third.

Italy voted to reduce the number of MPs in the lower house from 634 to 400, and the number of senators from 315 to 200. The driving reason behind the change to the constitution is apparently money - the move is projected to save EUR 1 billion in a decade (according to calculations "an MP costs €230,000 per year and a senator €249,600").

A counterargument pointed out in the article is that reducing the number of MPs weakens democracy and makes political lobbying more effective, so that could be an answer to the title question.

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