Speaking of Political Reform…

Rob Prather has put the question of political reform on the table, notably changes to the Electoral College.

Here’s another one to consider:  fixing the representativeness problem in the US House of Representatives by adopting what has been called the Wyoming Rule.

First, what’s the problem?  As I wrote back in 2005:

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.

In other words, the citizens of Wyoming (and any other state with less citizens than the average congressional district) are over-represented.  There are multiple ways to fix this, but the easiest is what is called the Wyoming Rule: take the population of the least populous state (currently Wyoming) and making that number the basis for congressional districts.  In other words, instead of starting from a set number of seats in the House (set by statute at 435) and then apportioning seats to states based on that number (and meaning that each 10 years the average number of citizens per district increases), we would start with the population figure of the least populated state and derive the number of seats needed from there.  This would mean, likely, an increase in the size of the House every ten years.

Really, if the main constitutional purpose of the House of Representatives is to represent the population, then it makes sense that it do so in as equitable a manner as possible. 

Back in 2005 I calculated what the application of the Wyoming Rule would have meant after the 2000 census (the table is to the right).

Quite frankly, the House is on the small-side and because we have a set number of seats it is possible for a state to gain population, but lose seats.  That actually doesn’t make sense if one stops and thinks about it for a moment.  It is also a small chamber in comparative terms.

Interestingly, we used to adjust the House size with some frequency in a way that kept general pace with Taagepera’s Cube Root Law for the best fit of assembly size and population (see the graph at Fruits and Votes plus more discussion here).  Indeed, as a historical note: 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).  The current size of the chamber was set in 1929 when the population of the United States was only ~121,000,000 (source).  It has grown roughly 250% since then.

Of course, if we are sticking with single-member districts, as this proposal does, we also need to institute a non-partisan redistricting process that would take the process out of the hands of state legislatures, which have every incentive to engage in partisan gerrymandering, which is a key malady in our politics. 

Now, this is a relatively easy reform.  If I was truly King for a Day and all that, I would almost certainly do away with our single-member district system and shift to probably a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system like they use in Germany, wherein half the legislature is elected by single member districts and half by nationwide PR.  Such a system basically guarantees two large parties (and thereby stability) as well as enhanced representativeness via the PR segment.  However, that’s for another post at another time.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. 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

Comments

  1. Steven,

    I had never heard of the Wyoming rule, but I like it. I like it a lot. I believe the House could fix this themselves if they wanted to. Instead, they are screwing around with trying to get a representative for DC.

  2. I think that the citizens in DC deserve the right to vote for representatives in House, although statehood makes no sense. My preference is probably for retrocession of that population to Maryland.

  3. […] revisit the idea of expanding the size of the US House over at OTB. addthis_url = 'http%3A%2F%2Fwww.poliblogger.com%2F%3Fp%3D18387'; addthis_title = […]

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    It would be a start but it’s still not nearly representative enough. My recollection is that at the time of the framing of the Constitution each representative represented something like 50,000 people (IIRC Washington thought that was too many).

    Given technological advances I think that a single Congressional representative can give adequate representation to significantly more people today than would have been imaginable in 1790. But a half million people or more? Absurd.

  5. Politically, expanding the size of the House is a tough sell. Plus we’d need to buy smaller furniture for the House chamber, and probably build another office building or two.

    Plus, given what rank-and-file House members actually do with their time in this era of Congress (which is tell their party leaders to freeze them out of the actual lawmaking process and just tell them what to do on 98%+ of their votes), an argument could be made that we could ditch about 200 of them with no real loss. Just to be contrarian…

    Interestingly, Clegg and Cameron both campaigned on cutting the Commons (the LibDem manifesto calls for 500 MPs, Cameron wants a 10% cut to 580ish).

  6. Steven,

    We agree again. I favor retrocession as well.

    Dave,

    No problem for me. I would just like a sane rule that isn’t designed to starve people of representation, which is what a fixed-size House is.

    Chris,

    I read something about some people saying that Britain had too many MPs compared to the rest of Europe. Your point about what kind of “work” they do is well taken. Even so, I would prefer that we have more of them for civic purposes.

  7. Steven,

    Do you happen to have the spreadsheet file you used to create the graphic above? If so, I would love for you to send it to me so I can play around with it.

  8. TangoMan says:

    If the goal is to create a congressional delegation which wields power in equal proportion to their constituent base you’ve identified one end of the spectrum and proposed a solution.

    There is however a more radical alternative which keeps the size of Congress the same but awards more power to Representatives from larger districts and less power to those from smaller districts, and this plan simply allows each Rep. to scale their vote by the ration of voters they represent.

    From you example, taking the last two states on the list, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Wyoming’s Congressman represents 495,304 citizens. Wisconsin’s 8 Congressmen represent 5,371,210 citizens, for an average district size of 671,401.

    So, when votes take place, Wyoming’s Representative gets to cast 1 vote. Each of the Wisconsin Representatives gets to cast 1.35 votes.

    House size stays uniform but the power wielded by the Representatives varies according the the population of the district.

  9. Electoral reform…

    Steven Taylor posts at OTB on electoral reform in the USA, concluding: If I was truly King for a Day and all that, I would almost certainly do away with our single-member district system and shift to probably a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system li…

  10. Wayne says:

    Arguing that we need more politicians in Washington is a tough sell. Do we need more hands in the pot and more spending on Congressman and their trips, staff, offices, salaries, etc?

    As for the above numbers, once you take away the States with just one Representative, the numbers become much closer.

    Remember we are a Republic not a pure Democracy. One could argue that the larger population states are overrepresented. After all one state is only one in fifty. To make it fair Wyoming should have as many representatives as California. Of course that is not fair but neither would be going purely by population be either.

    Yes I know we are talking about the House and not the Senate but some have suggested doing away with Senate or basing that on population. . Also there are other issues with increasing representation of larger population states.

    There are the Electoral College issues. The larger population states get far more proportional attention then the smaller states in Presidential elections and in other areas. Giving them even higher proportion of the Electoral College vote will only increase this.

    Representatives not only represent districts but they also represent states. They are far more likely to vote to bring in federal money to another district in their state than a district of another state. The list goes on but to make our country a pure\almost pure Democracy will only lead to disaster. IMO larger population states are over represented.

  11. @Wayne:

    Remember we are a Republic not a pure Democracy

    This is one of my bugaboos, but I don’t have the energy to get into it in any detail at the moment.

    I would ask, and I am sincere in my curiosity, what does this mean to you?

    I will say this: you are correct, we do not have a “pure democracy” in the sense that we do not have direct democracy, where all citizens govern. However, a republic, as the Founders understood it (see Fed 10 or Fed 39, for example) is simply what we call representative democracy.

    One could argue that the larger population states are overrepresented.

    Well, no, unless you are simply talking states alone. The bottom line is that state as states are just real estate. What matters are the citizens.

    And the democracy/republic business actually has nothing to do with federalism or states. Many people seem to think this, but it simply isn’t true.

    There are the Electoral College issues. The larger population states get far more proportional attention then the smaller states in Presidential elections and in other areas.

    Actually, since the Electoral College allocate votes to the states based on the number of House seats and Senate seats. As such, the smaller states are slightly over-represented in presidential elections as well.

    In terms of campaigning, the issue for where politicians place their attention is based on whether the state is a swing state or not, not based on its population.

  12. @Robert: I think I still have the spreadsheet. I will see if I can dig it up.

  13. Trumwill says:

    I really can’t get too excited about over-representation of Wyoming in the House. It’s a politically irrelevant state. Complaining that it has too much representation in the House is like complaining that somebody on minimum wage is making too much money. Even if technically true, what they get is peanuts. Wyoming is politically irrelevant. Montana isn’t much more relevant even though it’s a competitive state.

    Texas and California aren’t competitive, but they have large metropolitan areas of concentrated interests that are easier to translate into action in Washington. Their concentration of wealth invites fundraisers and raises larger armies of lobbyists. Their governors get easy access to the short list on presidential tickets. They get media attention because they’re media centers.

    I’m in favor of making the House larger. Provided that we have a Senate or an Electoral College or whatnot, I can see something like the Wyoming plan (except that I would probably want the smallest state to get two and double it). However, how many people are really concerned about the state of the House (gerrymandering aside) that don’t also want to do away with or radically change the Senate and the Electoral College?

  14. Trumwill says:

    Previous comment should say “outside of the senate, Wyoming is politically irrelevant.”

  15. John Burgess says:

    Sorry, but I favor shrinking the size of the House of Representatives. The current number of members is already too ungainly for orderly politics. It might be workable at half the size.

  16. Wayne says:

    Re “The bottom line is that state as states are just real estate.”

    If that is what you believe than we are in great disagreement. If that was true we could do away with state laws and governments. State laws and authority do not extend across state lines.

    California is nearly bankrupt. Most all states or having a hard time but big spending liberal states like New York are in much worst shape. The more fiscally responsible states should not have to pay for other’s spending.

    The whole purpose behind the senate was because many states fear the larger populated states would impose their will on the less populated states. The constitution was design around a minimal federal government rights, a larger state rights, larger still local rights, with the strongest rights reserve for the individual.

    But I forgot States are just real estate.

    To me a pure Democracy is one person equals to one vote in all cases and 50% + 1 majority rules every time. That is not the type of government our founders wanted or I want. A person in California shouldn’t have the same say in how Nebraskans lead their lives in Nebraska as a person from Nebraska has. Another parent in any state shouldn’t have as much say in how someone raises their children as that parent does. Yes there are minimum standards, but after that people need to stay out others business.

    Re “Actually, since the Electoral College allocate votes to the states based on the number of House seats and Senate seats. As such, the smaller states are slightly over-represented in presidential elections as well.”

    Depends how you look at it. Land wise they are not. As % of states they are not. Because California has such a big block of electoral votes it wipes out a number of smaller states. Even when it is pretty well certain which way they will vote, they still get more attention and have more influence. Trumwill did a good post on that. The swing states with large electoral vote will get much more attention than a small state.

  17. Wayne says:

    As for the numbers in the plan, your complaint is that there is an “unequal” vote per representative.

    “With 495,304 citizens, and with House districts set elsewhere are an average of 646,952”

    The “unequal” vote per representative still exist under Steve\Wyoming plan. Alaska would get one rep for each of their 628,000 votes while Wyoming gets one for each 495,000 , California gets one for each 491,000,Deleaware gets one for each 397,000 . Hawaii gets one for each 608,000 votes while Idaho gets one for each of its 432,000 votes.

    So clearly the discrepancies remain. So don’t give me this “it is all about being fair”. It is just like district gerrymandering, people are trying to jockey for position.

  18. Trumwill says:

    An interesting tidbit… this notion about small states being overrepresented in the House under the current system overlooks something relatively significant: The most underrepresented states are small states, too.

    In fact, Wyoming is the only state to be overrepresented purely on the basis of its population. There are three other states that are smaller than the average state, but in each instance, there are less well-represented than larger states.

    Meanwhile, the three most underrepresented states (Montana, Delaware, and South Dakota) have only one representative a piece.

    The larger states, by virtue of the fact that their population is split in so many ways, trend towards the middle.

  19. Trumwill says:

    Ugh. Last sentence of second paragraph should read: *they* are less well represented than larger states. For instance, Vermont has one rep for its 608k people, but a half-dozen other states with multiple reps (including Iowa with 5) get better representation than they do.

    Another interesting tidbit: Under the current model, the most overrepresented and underrepresented states (Wyoming and Montana) are adjacent. Under the Wyoming rule, the same is true (North Dakota and South Dakota).

    The overall trend is the same, too. The most overrepresented and underrepresented states are small-population states. They’re just harder to split up.

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    Sorry, but I favor shrinking the size of the House of Representatives. The current number of members is already too ungainly for orderly politics. It might be workable at half the size.

    A valid criticism of increasing the size of the House if its objective were “orderly politics”. That’s the objective of the Senate and, as you can see, that’s turning out well.

    The objective of the House is representing congressional districts and the people in those districts and in my view it’s simply impossible for any one person to give adequate representation to more than a half million people.

  21. @Wayne:

    Re “The bottom line is that state as states are just real estate.”

    If that is what you believe than we are in great disagreement. If that was true we could do away with state laws and governments. State laws and authority do not extend across state lines.

    This is certainly true, but you are mixing categories. The discussion is about representation in the House. In that sense states are just real estate and the issue is ultimately about citizens. It is why Alaska has 3 reps despite its immense size.

    Depends how you look at it. Land wise they are not. As % of states they are not. Because California has such a big block of electoral votes it wipes out a number of smaller states. Even when it is pretty well certain which way they will vote, they still get more attention and have more influence.

    And what you are asserting is empirically not the case in terms of per capita dollars spent by campaigns and the amount of time spent by candidates.

    Again, you are mixing categories. Yes, ultimately, the large states get more attention from the Congress, etc, but it is because they have more citizens. California is a “large state: because of its population. Likewise, Alaska is a “small state” for the same reason.

    And beyond that, it is simply mathematically the case that Californians’ votes are discounted in terms of the Electoral College vice smaller states because of the allocation of the votes.

    There really is no cogent defense for all citizens’ votes not to count the same save for “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Which, ultimately, isn’t a very good argument (or, really, an argument at all).

  22. One more:

    The swing states with large electoral vote will get much more attention than a small state.

    Well, yes. But that makes sense, both strategically and democratically, yes? One goes where the votes are.

  23. […] L. Taylor | Monday, May 10, 2010 Continuing a theme of late here at OTB (see here and here), the Kagan discussion reminds me of another reform to the US constitution that I would love to […]

  24. Wayne says:

    A Representative from California is still a Representative from California. You seem to be ignoring that. If you think of States as strictly the number of people they contain than you are missing out on the fact that any one State is 1/50th of the Union. One should consider both populations and the 1/50th point.

    However let’s get back on the issue. What about the discrepancies of the Wyoming plan?

  25. A Representative from California is still a Representative from California. You seem to be ignoring that

    I honestly don’t see how anything I have said could be construed in that fashion.

    If you think of States as strictly the number of people they contain than you are missing out on the fact that any one State is 1/50th of the Union. One should consider both populations and the 1/50th point.

    But the point remains that that is what the House of Representative is supposed to do, even going back to the Philadelphia convention, i.e., represent the states based on population. Its the Senate’s job to do the 1/50th bit, which is a different conversation.

    No plan is perfect, I will allow, and there are representative problems with the Wyoming Plan as well, although I they are less than under the one we currently have.

    Of course, the only way to have truly equal representation would be to allow House districts to ignore state boundaries.

  26. Wayne says:

    As I have already said, I understand that we are talking about the House which is based on population. If we were only talking about it affecting the number of votes in the House then more representative would be better. However it affects more than that. IMO we don’t need more politician and expenses in Washington but less.

    Ignoring State boundaries solves the numbers of Votes per representative issue but little else. Electoral College and gerrymandering districts wields it ugly head once again. Gerrymandering could be done in such a way where even if a State voted 75% for one Party , it could still end up with Representatives from another party.

    How would it be a “truly equal representation” for a state not to have a single voice in congress?

    FYI
    I am not happy with the gerrymandering of districts by States either but at least that is contain within the States.

  27. silverpie says:

    Applying the cube-root rule nowadays would yield a House of 676 members, while the UK House of Commons would end up around 400.

  28. @Silverpie: almost an across-the-board trade. Interesting.

    @Wayne,

    In re: gerrymandering, I wrote the following in the post:

    Of course, if we are sticking with single-member districts, as this proposal does, we also need to institute a non-partisan redistricting process that would take the process out of the hands of state legislatures, which have every incentive to engage in partisan gerrymandering, which is a key malady in our politics

    Also, you wrote:

    How would it be a “truly equal representation” for a state not to have a single voice in congress?

    Now, I am not actually proposing doing away with state boundaries in regards to the House. However, for the sake of argument this is a key example of what I am talking about in regards to real estate v. citizens. Citizens live where they live and have the interests they have based very much on that fact. However, if I lived in a Congressional district that spanned part of northern Alabama and part of southern Tennessee are my interests actually all that different if the district was fully in Alabama? In fact, a resident of northern Alabama probably has more in common politically with Tennesseans just over the border than they do with residents in Mobile. The state lines don’t limit political interests exactly in the way you are suggesting. I know full well that the interests of El Paso citizens, Dallas citizens and those of Tyler, Texas are not identical.

    And again, assuming that states-as-states need representation, we have the Senate.

  29. Until all states have total populations that don’t include unique numbers as their prime factors, this problem will continue to exist, albeit, perhaps to a smaller degree.

    I can’t see chnaging the whole system just because the smallest quantum of population doesn’t meet the average.

    And yes, retrocession of the Washington, DC area into Maryland is the correct answer. And then establish a new “federal area” in Nebraska for the capitol and do not allow anyone to establish residence within its boundaries.

  30. Wayne says:

    What entity can we trust to redistrict in a non-partisan way?

    There isn’t one. We need to have a process that is very difficult to gerrymandering. It would have flaws but would IMO be better than corrupting the process.

    Re “Citizens live where they live and have the interests they have based very much on that fact.”

    True but wherever they live they live in state boundaries and abide by that state laws and regulation. If there were no states you would have a point. However like a said California reps will represent California interest. In your above example, the most you could “hope” for is maybe a handful that would be concern with two States instead of one.

    A state with one voice in the House may not have much of a voice but at least that state has a voice in that chamber. You want to take that voice away. Yes they have the Senate but you would be cutting them completely out of one half of Congress. That would be like saying that we should do away with the House and that people are justly represented because they have representation in the Senate.

    Re” assuming that states-as-states need representation”
    Is that really in question?

  31. As most conversations regarding the size of the House of Representatives do, this reminds me of George Washington’s sole statement/interruption during the Constitutional Convention. It had been proposed that Representatives each have 40,000 constituents. Washington believed this to be too many and recommended 30,000 constituents per Representative. His suggestion was adopted. His first Presidential veto was also related to the apportionment of Representatives, though it allowed the 30,000 to become 33,000.

    I am one of those who believes that the House should be expanded and the number of constituents per Representative decrease. It would have a number of benefits, not the least of which would be greater responsiveness to the constituency. Though I also believe that it would significantly reduce the need of the current bureaucracy as well. The fewer constituents a Representative has, the more constituent services can be performed by Congressional staff. Additionally, a larger House allows for greater division of labor and would make Congress less dependent on non-elected/permanent staff as the Congress would be more able to share the loads of research among its members rather than to bureaucratic staff. It would also reduce the amount of money spent on individual Congressional elections and minimize — though not eliminate — some of the negative effects of gerrymandering. Currently, you can have districts where 40% of the population are never represented by a like minded Representative.