The Size of the House
Quick: what sets the number of seats in the US House of Representatives? It’s the constitution, right? After all, the Framers spent a lot of time debating the structure of the congress, so surely we base the size of the first chamber on the received wisdom of the Framers?
Well, no. The current size of the House, 435 seats, is the result of federal law. Indeed, a law passed in 1913 when the United States population was around 95,000,000 (it is now over three times that size).
Indeed, as Bruce Barlett points out in a recent column, one of the Framers (that Madison fellow) was concerned that there was no mechanism in the constitution to deal with the size of the first chamber and he proposed an amendment to automatically increase the size of the chamber as the population grew. This amendment failed. It is worth noting that the original ration of inhabitants to representative mentioned in the constitution was 30,000:1, and Madison’s proposed amendment spoke of ratios such as 40,000:1 and 50,000:1 (with size limits in terms of seats also part of the discussion).
The current ratio of inhabitant to representative is now roughly 729,000:1.
Now, clearly, Madison did not foresee the population growth that has taken place, and those originally proposed ratios would not have worked. Further, Congress did, in the first century plus of US history, adjust the size of the chamber to accommodate growth. To wit, the size of the chamber has grown thusly: 65, 105, 141, 181, 213, 240, 223, 234, 241, 292, 325, 356, 386, and 435 (and briefly 436 and 437 with the additions of the states of Hawaii and Alaska before reverting to 435 in 1963). So while the chamber’s size was revised just over a dozen times in the 1800s into the early 1900s, it has remained static (save for a brief hiccup) for over a century, despite the addition of over 200,000,000 inhabitants in that timeframe. Of course, the earlier growth was mostly linked to territorial expansion and the addition of states, rather than necessarily with the question of right-sizing the chamber to deal with population per se.
Why be concerned about this? There are numerous reasons, but two pretty straight-forward ones are as follows:
1. The quality of representation. The current ratio of Representation to inhabitant is roughly 730,000:1. Really, the problem here should be pretty obvious. If the purpose of the House of Representatives is to to provide representation of citizen interests in the central government, we should ask ourselves as to the degree to which this can be done for roughly three-quarters of a million people per representative.
Representation is a tricky business to begin with because even a smaller ratio of representatives to the represented would still mean that each representative would have a vast and varied set of citizens to represent in the congress. However, the more people that a given member of the House has to represent, the more likely that various and divergent interests are contained in the district–more people per district means possible conflicting interests to be represented. Yes, some level of conflict is impossible to avoid, especially since in a system of single seat districts that there are inherent tensions between true representation of interests in a national legislature and representation of geographical spaces.* However, there is no doubt that as the number of persons who must be represented increases, the ability of a single representative to adequately represent those interests becomes all the more complicated.
There is also the question of constituency services to consider.
2. The over-representation of some citizens. Since each state is guaranteed a seat in the House, small population states get a bit more say in the House than does the vast majority of the population. As noted, House districts are roughly 729,000 persons in size, but Wyoming has abut 576,000 inhabitants. There is a real fairness issue to consider here.
At the most minimum of minimum reforms should be the adoption of the Wyoming Rule, which states that the the size of House districts (in terms of persons) should be linked to the size of the the population of the least populous state. Such a rule would, at least, guarantee that citizens across the country would receive equal representation in the House and would fix some of the distortions of the electoral college (although not all of them). I wrote about the Wyoming Rule here, and noted that based on the 2000 census that the size of the House would increase under it to 568 seats. My friend and co-author on a pending book, Matthew Shugart notes over at Fruits and Votes that the US is also an oddity in terms of comparative legislatures, as we have one of the more undersized chambers in the world. Bartlett in his piece notes a few comparative ratios that help illustrate the point:
In closing, let me note that according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the House of Representatives is on the very high side of population per representative at 729,000. The population per member in the lower house of other major countries is considerably smaller: Britain and Italy, 97,000; Canada and France, 114,000; Germany, 135,000; Australia, 147,000; and Japan, 265,000.
This is an issue worth thinking about for both abstract and practical reasons. The more abstract reason is simply that if we value democratic representation, then we should be concerned about issues such as this. As John Adams wrote in Thought on Government: “The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” Such a notion becomes all the harder the more that representativeness of a a given representative is diluted. In other words: as the number of represented increases per representative, the less likely it is that the representative will be able to come anywhere close to representing the interests of the district in question. More likely than not, dominant groups will have an easier time influencing a given representative, even if those groups are small relative to the population of the district. Two obvious examples: those with money and those who directly influence nominations.
This leads into practical considerations. The congress is increasingly a dysfunctional (or, at least, poorly functioning) institution. It was designed to require frequent input from the citizens, but we know that despite biannual elections and high levels of public dissatisfaction that re-election rates are extremely high. A larger House would mean smaller districts in terms of population. Smaller districts would help (although by no means fix) the responsiveness issues.
No reform is a panacea, but this issue is worth some thought. I would point those interested to both the Bruce Bartlett column mentioned above (the proximate cause of this post, in fact) and the post from Matthew Shugart, also noted above.
*Indeed, a key argument for some form of proportional representation is that voters can vote directly for parties that represent specific constellations of interests rather than having to vote for candidates whose job it is to represent specific tracts of real estate.