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.