The Size of the US House of Representatives
It hasn't changed in over 100 years (but the population sure has).
Since is it the year of impacts from the 2020 Census, it is natural to think about its effects on the US House of Representatives, given that apportionment of that body is the sole constitutional reason these days for the exercise (it use for taxation went away with the 16th Amendment). And while many assume that the number of seats in the House is set in the constitution itself, this is not the case. We have a chamber set at 435 seats in the House because of a law passed just under a century ago when the population of the United States was less than a third of its current number. Indeed, until a century ago the size of the chamber was re-assessed every decade.
FiveThirtyEight explains How The House Got Stuck At 435 Seats.
until the House was capped at 435 seats2 by the 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act, each apportionment period was regularly accompanied by clashes over how to best divvy up political power in Congress — including the size of the House.
On the one hand, it’s probably a good thing that Congress is no longer debating the size of the House every 10 years. After all, the reason we have the 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act in the first place is that Congress was unable to reach an agreement on how to reapportion the House for nearly a decade.
Let me start off by being contrarian: it is not a good thing we no longer debate the size of the House every decade. As anyone in a long-term relationship knows, sublimating an issue of real conflict creates peace in the short term but can cause long-term damage if it remains unaddressed.
I do understand the concerns about yet another thing to fight about in our politics, but right now House expansion would be a good idea if one is concerned about representational quality, as the House is just too small.
Note that while the 1929 law is what set 435 in stone, we have actually had 435 seats in the chamber since 1913 and the 63rd Congress. The 1910 census which that 1913 seat count was based on found 92 million Americans. The 2020 count was 331 million.
Indeed, the FiveThirtyEight piece pivots to this problem:
On the other hand, the fact that the size of the House hasn’t increased in more than a century is a real problem for our democracy. For starters, there is an ever wider gulf between Americans and their representatives, as the average number of people represented in a district has more than tripled, from about 210,000 in 1910 to about 760,000 in 2020.3 Moreover, some states are severely over- and underrepresented as a result.
A side note that needs to be remembered beyond the quality of representation in the House, the number of seats in the Congress dictates the number of electoral votes, so this issue has multiple implications.
The basic situation is well illustrated here:
The reason we are stuck at 435 (or, at least, why we had a fight about it a century ago) is straight from the Deja Vu File: urban v. rural representation and fear of immigrants having too much political power:
The 1920 census is when things broke down. For the first time, a majority of the population lived in “urban” areas. And although the Census Bureau’s definition was broad — it included any place with at least 2,500 people — the finding reflected America’s power center was moving away from rural areas toward urban ones due to industrialization and high levels of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. This made the apportionment process particularly challenging, as Congress had to navigate two competing concerns: first, the worry that greater urban power would lead to rural seat loss if the House didn’t expand, and second, a growing belief among many members that the House was already too crowded and that an increase in seats would make it truly unwieldy.
And, of course, the gap between the lowest and highest population states has grown over that last century:
In 1910, the largest state, New York, had about 9 million more people than the smallest — that is, least populous — state, Nevada. But today, the largest state, California, has nearly 39 million more people than the smallest, Wyoming.
Not too mention the that number of people represented per district has skyrocketed:
The piece then turns both to a comparative context and to political scientists for more explanations. One of those political scientists was my friend and co-author, Matthew Shugart (and, gratifyingly, they cited our book as part of the conversation):
there’s actually a fairly straightforward solution that isn’t too far off from what America used to do before — albeit unintentionally. It’s known as the cube root law in political science, or the fact that the size of a country’s parliament often hews to the cube root of the nation’s population.
Matthew Shugart, a professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, has tried to unpack why this is often the case. After all, there is no law that says countries’ parliaments must be the cube root of their population, yet they often are, as the chart below shows. Of the 30 major democracies Shugart and his co-authors looked at alongside the U.S., a majority of them have legislatures very close to — or fairly near — the cube root of their populations.
There is more in the piece, including more on the Cube Root Law, so I recommend a read.
I will, however, share the concluding paragraph:
“It’s going to be difficult to increase the size of the House of Representatives; I’m under no illusions,” said Frederick of Bridgewater State University. Nevertheless, it may be time for a change given how unequal districts have become between states and how underrepresented Americans are after more than 100 years of being stuck at 435 House members. Said Frederick, “There’s no doubt that a larger House with smaller constituency population size per district would improve the representational quality that citizens receive from members of Congress.”
See, also at FiveThirtyEight: What If The House Of Representatives Had More Than 435 Seats?