Written by Harry Burke

Make The House of Representatives Bigger

Make the House of Representatives bigger.

US Capitol US House of Representatives Reflection North Side Congress Capital City Night Stars Washington DC

At first glance, Congress seems more than big enough. There’s 535 members: 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives. The House seems especially large. 435 people anywhere is a crowd. But what if I said congress is too small and that we should have a hundred or so more? Often when I suggest this people laugh and give me a few knee-jerk arguments against it:

  1. How would we fit them in the Capitol Building? 
  2. It would be harder to get all of congress organized behind legislation.
  3. Congress is dysfunctional because it is filled with elitist Washington insiders—do you really want to add more people to an already broken institution?

You bet I do. Well, not the add more “inside-the-beltway-elites” part, but more members of congress? Absolutely. Congress hasn’t grown since the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 which I’ll get into later. Before that, we added seats pretty consistently. We need to get back to this practice and not get bogged down in these other details; they will work themselves out:

  1. On the “where will we put them” question, we’re a pretty advanced and industrious society. I’m sure we can build the space we need.
  2. To the “won’t it be harder to organize coalitions” point: e-mail, instant messaging, and other digital tools make a quick fix. 
  3. To the “don’t add more people to the already burgeoning supply of inside-the-beltway types” point, adding more members of congress doesn’t guarantee this.

These initial counters to expanding the House of Representatives are all solvable to me. Alternatively, by not expanding the House we run the risk of exacerbating more pressing issues hurting our representative democracy.

Congress has a lot on its plate

On average, a member of congress represents around 750,000 constituents. That’s too many people for one member and their relatively small staff. The federal government has grown exponentially since our founding, and congress is doing more than ever. Simply put, we just need more people to handle the load.

This level of representation is also antithetical to the framer’s vision for the House of Representatives. James Madison—in the list of amendments proposed for ratification that would eventually become known as the Bill of Rights—included an amendment that would have capped the number of constituents in a House district at 50,000 people. Obviously that amendment wasn’t included in the Bill of Right, but funny enough it was recently discovered that the reapportionment amendment had in fact been ratified by the required number of states in 1792. Due to a clerical error, Connecticut was thought not to have ratified it and so it wasn’t included. In retrospect, it is probably a good thing the amendment was never recorded. If it had, we would need a football stadium to fit everyone. But what it does highlight is the framer’s thinking: they were so concerned about House districts getting too big that they proposed an amendment to address it. The House of Representatives was supposed to be the branch closest to the people. 750,000 constituents per member makes that closeness increasingly elusive.

Out of balance

Beyond representation and closeness to the people, the current size of congress throws political power out of balance, with smaller states gaining disproportionately. 

The Senate has always skewed towards smaller states. But because we haven’t increased the size of the House of Representatives in almost 100 years, the influence of small states within our system has increased. In the Electoral College, a state like Wyoming has greater voting power than a state like California, with one estimate putting Wyoming’s voting power at 3.7 times greater than California’s. By comparison, in 1792 Delawarean’s had 1.7 times greater voting power than the largest state in the union at the time: Virginia. And it is not just a Democrat versus Republican issue. Red Texas is the next largest state in the country and faces a similar disparity when compared with a small blue state like Vermont. And not expanding congress increases the frequency of unbalanced outcomes like the winner of the popular vote losing the presidency in the Electoral College. Not accounting for population growth by halting the expansion of the House will eventually reflect itself in the Electoral College, as each state’s electoral votes are determined by their state’s congressional delegation (2 Senators + # of House seats).

Expanding congress would help alleviate this disparity in voting power. Larger states would get more representatives and by extension ensure greater parity with small states in the Electoral College.

The 435 cap was a power grab

Perhaps the most irritating reason congress hasn’t been expanded is because the current legal cap of 435 members was put in place for ill-considered reasons.

For much of U.S. history, congress was expanded to keep up with population growth and new states admitted to the union. That norm came to a head after 1920. In the census that year, a trend began to manifest itself: Americans were leaving rural America and heading to growing urban centers. In order to ensure their power wasn’t diluted, rural representatives fought to halt cities from gaining seats in the House of Representatives. According to a Census overview of the 1920 census: rural representatives:

worked to derail the [reapportionment] process, fearful of losing political power to the cities. Reapportionment legislation was repeatedly delayed as rural interests tried to come up with mechanisms that would blunt the impact of the population shift.

What followed was the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, which capped the House at our current 435 number. 

There is no good reason for the number we’re stuck with today. It is simply another instance in history when a certain faction’s power was threatened. They then passed a law to protect it. We’re still living with their short-sighted decision today and we should correct their mistake.

Possible options for expansion

So how many more seats should we have? Madison and the framer’s original reapportionment amendment is not practical today. We would need to add thousands more seats to the House if we implemented it. 

One idea is to use what is known as the Wyoming rule. Under the Wyoming rule, representation in the House would be determined based on the population of the smallest state in the Union, which is currently Wyoming. Put simply, you would take the population of all 50 states and divide it by the population of Wyoming. That would give you the total number of seats to apportion, which today would be about 570. It would also help to rectify the representation disparities between districts and states. 

Others have suggested following what is known as the cubed root rule, where you take the cubed root of a country’s population to determine the number of representatives in the national legislature. With an estimated population of about 330 million people, Congress would be at about 691. Subtract 100 to account for the 100 members of the Senate, and the House of Representatives would be at about 591. To meet that number we would need about 156 additional seats. This is the method I favor since it is directly tied to population trends in the country. 

Grow Congress

Expanding the House of Representatives would mean building more office space, hiring more staff, and finding ways to organize more members around legislation. I guess there is also a chance we will simply increase the ranks of the entrenched powers that be. But expanding the House of Representatives would be more than worth these minor headaches.

A 435 member cap has thrown our electoral systems out of balance and driven our representatives further away from us. We’re stuck with this number not for any enlightened reason that kept our constitution’s founding principles in mind. It’s because rural representatives didn’t want to cede their influence to the flourishing cities. 

Congress needs to grow. If you read this piece and still think expanding the House of Representatives is a bad idea, that’s fine. But all due respect, give me a better argument than you’re worried about where they’re all going to park.