Representation in the House: The Wyoming Rule

One simple proposal on the size of the House of Representatives.

James Joyner raises the question of the size of the US House of Representatives in a post from earlier this morning.  While most of us likely take the size of the House for granted and assume that it is set by the Constitution, this is not the case.  Rather, the current size of the House is an artifact of federal law.   Indeed, the House has been the following sizes over time: 65, 105, 141, 181, 213, 240, 223, 234, 241, 292, 325, 356, 386, and 435 (and briefly 436 and 437 with the additions of Hawaii and Alaska before reverting to 435 in 1963).

There is a legitimate question as to whether the current size of the House is adequate to represent the interests of the citizens of the United States.  Consider that the the number of reps went to 435 as of the Congress sworn in in 1913.  The population of the United States in 1913 was ~95,335,000.  Today the population is over three time that level at over 310,000,000.

All of this reminded me of a post I wrote at PoliBlog some years ago now on a rather modest proposal in terms of the size of the House:  the Wyoming Rule.  This post is an reworked version of that post from 2005.

The idea is pretty straightforward:  that we re-size the House of Representatives based on a rule that makes each district (roughly) the same size as the smallest unit in the system (i.e., the least populated state). As such the concept is dubbed “The Wyoming Rule.”

Ok, so why do this or even consider such shift? The reason is pretty straightforward: as currently constituted the House does not equally represent citizens. For example, Wyoming citizens are significantly over-represented. With 495,304 citizens, and with House districts set elsewhere are an average of 646,952, the discrepancy is clear. There are other problems as well, but those numbers well illustrate the situation. Given that the purpose of the House is to directly represent the citizens of the United States, there really is no cogent argument not to consider re-vamping the institution to insure that it is adequately representative. While application of the “Wyoming Rule” would not create perfect representation, it would significantly improve the situation and isn’t especially radical.

Ok, so if applied, what would happen?  The simple answer is that the House would go from 435 seats to 568.  Below I have simply taken the 2000 Census data and set the district size at 495,304 (i.e., at the 2000 population of Wyoming). For simplicity’s sake, I have given a state with .5 or more of that number an additional district. That wouldn’t necessarily be the way it would work (it’s not the way it works now), but given that I don’t have the time to spend determining how to deal with additional citizens, I will stick with the easiest solution. Granted just using simple rounding does create some maldistribution in the ratio of citizens to seats.

All numbers from the 2000 Census and used in the 2001 reapportionment.

Of course, this would still leave Alaska (628,933), North Dakota (643,756) and Vermont (609,890) under-represented since each would have only one seat in the House, but their citizens’ vote voted would be discounted slightly. Of course, because of rounding, some states would be slightly over-represented. Still, such a system would be far fairer democratically speaking than the current freezing of the House at 435. Given that that number is essentially arbitrary (the House got that big and it was deemed to be enough) there really is no reason to be wedded to it. Indeed, if one considers the growth in the US population since 1929 (when 435 became the number by law) it is hard to make an argument for leaving the number where it is (this is reinforced by the fact that the 1929 law based 435 on the 1910 census).

Indeed, if one’s reaction to the concept is “no way we should change the number of House members,” my question would be: “what’s the argument for 435?” It isn’t exactly carved into the Constitution.

And yes, under this plan it is possible that the number of seats in the House would possibly change every ten years, but so what?

The most typical objection to such proposals is that a bigger House means more politicians (and the commensurate cost thereof).  However, it strikes me that since the issue here is a fairly fundamental one, i.e., the quality of representation, that these would be costs worth bearing.

See also Matthew Shugart’s2005 post:  Increase the size of the House via the ‘Wyoming Rule’ (Matthew’s post refers to a House of 569, which was based on a proposal that would given DC a seat as well).

Beyond the Wyoming Rule, there are any number of other discussions one might have about the appropriate size of a legislative body, but I will stick to this proposal for the moment.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Michael says:

    To be clear, the “problem” to be overcome by this proposal is the fact that Wyoming citizens have too much power in the House of Representatives. While this may be true on paper, I don’t see it being an actual problem when it comes to reality. Certainly I’ve never heard anybody lament about the one Wyoming representative pushing the country in the wrong direction.

  2. @Michael:

    The problem is a tad more complicated than the over-representation of Wyoming; rather, Wyoming makes for a useful place to begin the conversation. Note the increase in representation across the country that this very simple plan creates. What that underscore is not so much the over representation of Wyoming and its disproportionate power in the House but rather it underscores a fairly dramatic amount of under-representation across the country.

    There is also the not insignificant fact that the population is over three times the size that it was when we set the House size at 435.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    To put the representation issue into a bit of perspective when the Constitution was ratified each representative’s district had about 50,000 people in it (Washington thought it should be more like 36,000).

    The British Parliament has 650 MPs in Commons representing about 62 million people (1 per 95,000), the German Bundestag 622 members representing 82 million (1 per 132,000), and the French Parliament 577 deputies representing 65 million (1 per 113,000).

    Our present ratio is one representative for each 690,000 persons. That’s absurdly unrepresentative.

    It might be argued that a House of Representatives of 3,000 members would be too unwieldy to handle day-to-day affairs. I agree. That’s why the Congress shouldn’t be handling day-to-day affairs. We have states for that.

  4. Trumwill says:

    My initial thought is that this is a relatively pointless exercise that goes from a House that’s mildly unfair to one that’s a little more mildly unfair. But I can’t say that I really object to it. As someone that supports the existence of a senate, if nothing else it helps my argument that the House represents populations as closely as possible.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Why not get to the real problem: states that have no business being states. As a state Wyoming is a failure. If it were a corporation it would long since have been bought out by Colorado. We employ the New Jersey rule: if you don’t have at least as many people as New Jersey then fuggedaboutit, you’re not a state.

    Why not go with Steven’s plan, but with a new configuration of states that would save us in Senators what we’d have to spend in Congressmen? We add 133 Congressmen, drop maybe a dozen or so Senators and given the disparities in staff between the two chambers probably break even.

  6. Talk about a solution looking for a problem…

  7. How about a smaller government instead and an emphasis on federalism instead?

  8. @Charles:

    If the assumption is that Washington is not behaving at the people want it to behave that suggests a problem with representation, yes?

  9. Jay Tea says:

    MIchael, population is hardly the only way to measure a state’s success. Hell, it’s hardly the best. California is the most populous, and it’s teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.


  10. michael reynolds says:

    Jay T:

    The state government of California is in trouble. The state of California could buy Wyoming with the spare change to be found between the sofa cushions of Malibu.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Hmm. I thought that might be the case. It seems if you believe the Google that the phrase “the sofa cushions of Malibu” has never before been written.

    Please consider it copyrighted.

  12. Jay Tea says:

    Yeah, but the state government is pretty much the only body empowered to act in the state’s name. If we’re talking economic power of individuals and corporations, then I’d think of Arkansas (Wal-Mart), Washington (Microsoft and Boeing), Connecticut (tons of wealthy folks), and Delaware (official home state of a LOT of corporations) as “superpowers.”

    And congrats on the copyright. I dunno if I’d be proud of “the sofa cushions of Malibu” as a creation, but hey — to each their own.


  13. “The sofa cushions of Malibu” sounds like a wonderful title for a movie, perhaps one aimed at a… grown up audience, shall we say. “Sofa Cushions of Malibu 2: The Love Seat” is already in the works.

    But back to the topic at hand — the basic idea of the “Wyoming proposal” seems fair and better-calculated to fit the rule of Baker v. Carr than the existing system. I agree that simply because be a lot more representatives is not a particularly strong objection. Smaller districts are in theory better but again, so what if a representative stands for 400,000 people or 650,000? With modern technology the ability to reach out and communicate with large numbers of people today is much better than anything the Founders could have imagined.

    The real issue is whether the Congresscritters in question behave in a way that is sensitive to the popular will. For that, they need to be in competitive districts, and that’s the real problem. As it stands, the bulk of members of the House know that unless they get caught with their hands directly in the cookie jar or with their sexual organs on film in the wrong person, they’re effectively invested in sinecures, and they are free to comply with their real constituents — the interest groups which fund their one-sided campaigns.

    What can be done to encourage more competitive elections, regardless of the size or number of districts?

  14. Trumwill says:

    What can be done to encourage more competitive elections, regardless of the size or number of districts?

    Well, the most obvious answer involves the stopping of gerrymandered districts. Even that will only go so far, though, due to the Big Sort.

  15. anjin-san says:

    > I’d think of Arkansas (Wal-Mart), Washington (Microsoft and Boeing), Connecticut (tons of wealthy folks), and Delaware (official home state of a LOT of corporations) as “superpowers.”

    Think away. We probably economic muscle in that range just in the bay area.

    > I dunno if I’d be proud of “the sofa cushions of Malibu” as a creation,

    may be due to a lack of imagination…

    Anyway, how about a little Damn Hippie Malibu Music?

  16. Jay Tea says:

    Oh, anjin, you’re so cute when you obsess about cheap-shotting me. If you’d actually read what I wrote, you’d have seen that I was disputing Michael’s notion that a state’s “power” does not rest in the hands of the state’s government.

    As far as “Sofa Cushions of Malibu…” I’m sure there’s a Rule 34 joke in there somewhere, but I just can’t get my mind around it. On the other hand, I can see it as a reality show in the next few years, so, Michael, you just might make some money off it.


  17. anjin-san says:

    Jay… It’s nice that you take yourself so seriously – rest assured, no one else does, and the “you are obsessed with me” is pretty weak tea indeed. Can you do no better?

  18. Jay Tea says:

    Oh, absolutely, anjin… you’re just not worth it. Plus, you didn’t give me much to work with:

    Think away. We probably economic muscle in that range just in the bay area.

    Missing a verb there, sport.

    may be due to a lack of imagination…

    Gratuitous dig.

    As was obvious to all but raging dolts, I was citing examples of states OTHER THAN CALIFORNIA that could be considered “economic powerhouses” if one counted the private sector located therein — as part of an overall critique of Michael’s notion that a state’s power could be defined in other ways through its government. To nit-pick about private wealth in the Golden State was utterly irrelevant — unless your intent was to attempt to cheap-shot me. And that certainly fit the context of your other remarks.

    I stand by my assertion: Michael’s point about private wealth was interesting, but not relevant to the notion of states having the clout to “take over” lesser states — such actions could only be undertaken by the government of a state, and the “biggest” states are in far too much economic trouble to pull it off. Especially California.