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?

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, US Politics
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. Scott F. says:

    As someone who believes that the House is “truly unwieldy” at its current size, I wonder if the better (though infinitely harder) solution might be to forego increasing the size of the house and rather re-organize the boundaries (and number) of the states. If the intent is to maximize the representativeness of the legislature, I’d say the severe over- and underrepresentation by state is a much bigger deal than number of constituents per member of the House.

    The approximate 3.5M citizens of Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota combined are a much more homogeneous populace than the 3.5M people who live in Connecticut. 2 Congresspersons could represent the interests of Wytankota and the job would be fundamentally the same as it is now considering retail politics is practically immaterial in an age of Twitter and video-conferencing.

    The best path is rarely the easier one. The minority is going to scream bloody murder over any apportionment effort that will diminish their current, egregious advantages, so you might as well go big. BONUS: Redrawing state lines would have the added benefit of correcting for the minority favoring skew of the Senate.

  2. de stijl says:

    I’m kinda for double it and call it even.

    Maybe make it set as a ratio of rep per pop rather a set number.

    Smaller districts make it harder to gerrymander to partisan effect.

    Also in favor of non-partisan re-districting committees. Not absolute, but on the whole quite positively effective.

    Our current schema yields democracy deserts where a slice of a city gets placed in amongst more rural voters.

    R gerrymandering is notorious for diluting the urban vote.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Scott F.:

    Won’t happen. In the 80’s there was a proposal to merge North and South Dakota that went no where. Heck, North Dakotan’s wouldn’t agree to drop the North from the states name in order to make it seem less remote.

    The chance of increasing the House size is remote, but more likely than dealing with the inequities of the the Senate. For it to happen, the sponsors will need a formula that makes the vast majority of states, winners.

  4. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    For it to happen, the sponsors will need a formula that makes the vast majority of states, winners.

    And the majority of Representatives winners as well, since they would be voting on it.

    Which means figuring out a way to convince them they will have more power with fewer constituents, and more competition for interview slots on news networks.

  5. Don’t raise the bridge—lower the river. Maybe the problem isn’t just that the House doesn’t have enough members but that some states are far too populous.

  6. Some observations that cover several items above:

    1. I would argue that a lot you are falling into a very US-centric way of thinking. Specifically in this case too much focus on states (which are ultimately arbitrary lines on a map) and not on the size of the overall population (and therefore to broader issues of representation).

    2. If other countries (with smaller populations) can function with large legislative bodies, why is the US uniquely unable to do so?

    3. This is, by no mean, a silver bullet of a reform suggestion. We really need massive electoral reform, as I have frequently noted.

    4. I am always surprised that readers are often seem content with “we set the current House with only 92 million people.”

    5. A follow-on from #4: we are trending towards each Representative representing over 800,000 residents.

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  7. Also: as hard a sell as expanding the House might be, breaking up state has got to be a non-starter in the American political context.

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  8. Michael Cain says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If other countries (with smaller populations) can function with large legislative bodies, why is the US uniquely unable to do so?

    I frequently complain about the physical size rather than the population. Currently in my state — which is not gerrymandered — for one of the seven districts the fastest drive from corner to corner takes you through at least a portion of all of the other six. Some Congress critters have it easy — Sen. Joe Biden famously used to joke about finishing up for the day, getting on the train, and sleeping in his own bed in his own house every night. Even within the 48 contiguous states, some members are looking at 5-6 hour flights plus an hour or two of driving each way. I suspect there are times when the weather is working against him that Jon Tester can’t do DC-to-home in 24 hours.

    I have been heard to say, with tongue only partially in cheek, that if we abandoned the current federal district, bought a 10×10 mile square near North Platte, NE, built shiny new residents and working space for Congress, the President and the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court, plus a nifty airport, we would quickly get back to the days when Congress started in January and wound up for the year by the end of May.

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  9. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I agree. I also think it indicates that liberal representative government in the United States is on a short fuse. As is attributed to Lincoln when asked how many legs a calf would have if he called its tail a leg, calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg.

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  10. Scott F. says:

    @Sleeping Dog & @Steven L. Taylor:
    IMHO, expanding the House is no more likely than reformation of the states. Both are equally ‘non-starters.’ So, at the very least, argue for doing both. Heck, throw in multi-member districts, too.

    If no action will be taken in any case – due to constitutional and political forces thoroughly discussed in these parts – then I would prefer we talk about the whole gamut of problems with our non-representative governance and consider the full menu of corrective actions. If it’s just a thought exercise in the end, let’s have some fun with it.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    A few top of the head comments:

    If my back of the envelope is correct the cube root rule would say the House should be high 600s, let’s leave a little room for population growth and round off to 700. This would mean about 428,500 people per district. This would leave CA with 92 seats and WY still with 1. They’d be slightly underrepresented with one, but that seems only fair for awhile.

    A 700 seat body shouldn’t be much more unwieldy than 435. Space might be an issue, but first, one of the standard rulers of business is bricks and mortar are cheap. But it’s the 21st Century. Why do they need to be in the same place?

    As @de stijl: notes, this would make gerrymandering harder. It would also be a good excuse for imposing fair, uniform redistricting rules. Hey legislature, you don’t want to dive into defining 50 plus districts, let’s bring in some math types who can come up with an algorithm. It would also reduce the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. WY would still get their ridiculous three votes, but CA would get 94.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    Space might be an issue

    What if, and I’m just spitballing here, in addition to making the districts smaller, we made the Representatives smaller? It’s important to remember that the founding fathers were not large men — nutrition has added almost another 6” to height since then, and the lack of constant video meant that people didn’t realize how tiny their representatives might be.

    Lincoln was a giant at 6’4” four score and seven years after the founding, and he would just be “pretty tall” for a national politician now, assuming he wasn’t adding two inches to his height like so many men do.

    Now, obviously we don’t want a lot of people with Napoleon complexes running around the Capitol, so we shouldn’t set a maximum height of 5’6” or something like that — that just leads to the likes of Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan. No, we should just go all out — little people.

    Little people are a diverse group, of every ethnicity, race and gender, and likely every political stripe as well. They’re like a microcosm of America. Who better to have in Congress?

    Alternately, if we switch to slates of candidates from each state, rather than individual races, we could implement a districting policy where the total height of representatives from a state is determined, split that by vote across the state, and let the parties decide how to allocate 93 meters of total representative height in some state.

    It would be a big boost to women in office. And, of course, little people.

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  13. @Michael Cain:

    I frequently complain about the physical size

    Also a legit issue.

  14. Kathy says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Increasing the size of the House, reforming several states, and expanding the Supreme Court, would be trivial next to reducing the area of the country 🙂

    Seriously, it’s not easy to move the capital elsewhere. What would you do with the White House and the Capitol? Sure, the new capital would have a presidential palace and legislative chambers, grand ones, too, but what happens to the old ones?

    It would be feasible to keep DC as a ceremonial capital. You’d do the inaugurations there, the State of the Union address, the opening of each Congress, and use the White House 1.0 for state dinners and maybe signing major legislation.

    relevant too, perhaps even most relevant, is whether the various lobbyists and other Beltway creatures would be willing to go along.

  15. de stijl says:

    You know how some school districts get too many students for the facilities and resort to those big cargo containers as make-do interim classrooms?

    That could totally work for congress, too.

    Also you could double stack desks vertically with a ladder, or a tiny lift.

    I like the concept of double stacked desks. It would add a variable. Not just right or left and front and back benchers, but up and down too.

    Our representation would become 3 dimensional overnight. x, y, and z axis.

    CSPAN would need to buy additional cameras.

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  16. David S. says:

    I mean, if we’re talking quixotic ideas, the one I came up in three minutes is
    1. remove party designations from sitting legislators;
    2. don’t bother changing either chamber size;
    3. enshrine political parties in the actual constitution, since we’re changing that anyways; and
    4. create a third chamber specifically intended for hashing out nation-scale political interests and seat it from party lists.

    Then you can have three chambers: the Senate, which looks out for states’ interests; the House, which looks out for the interests in a given census block; and the Parliament, which looks out for ideological interests.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  17. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Little people, big legislation.

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  18. @David S.:

    What could possibly go wrong?

    I’ve got a list. (But I am not sure if you are being serious or not).

    1
  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, I find it a curious thing that apparently changing the size of the House requires the approval of the Senate.

    I endorse expanding the House. I think it’s kinda nuts that there’s so much variation in how many people are in a Congressperson’s district.

  20. GLEN TOMKINS says:

    Yes, the size of the House should be up for debate. So should a whole lot of details of the structure of our govt that have ossified beyond the reach of reasoned examination because they have become treated as if they were second nature.

    My vote would be for reducing the number of House members. Even at just 435, even if we have friendly state legislatures drawing district lines, having that many districts results in a structural gerrymander that works against Ds. Our voters tend to cluster closely packed together in cities. Unless you allow extremely tentacled district lines that trap that state’s share of rural voters in districts dominated by Ds, this results in many districts that perform 90/10, D/R. Many of our voters are stuck in districts in which their votes are wasted, because any D is going to carry that district 90-10 against any R. Out in the country it’s R territory, but never by 95/5 or even 90/10 margins over an area large enough to become a district.

    More districts, more granularity, and you just make this worse. We would have 95/5 urban districts that suck up so many of our voters that the rest of the map would leave Rs more narrowly controlling most districts.

    Fewer districts and we could get more of a mix of voters forced into the process of drawing district lines. The US in 2021 is an overwhelmingly urban nation. Even allowing for the squishiness of suburban voters, getting rid of the structural gerrymander imposed by the concentration of our voters in the center of cities would unleash the power of that urban majority and insure D domination of the House as far into the future as it takes the Rs, or whatever party that succeeds them, to come to Jesus and repent their hatred of cities and the people who live there.

  21. Tom Bavis says:

    Simple. 100 votes each for House and Senate, divided (fractionally as required) by population each member represents. California gets 27 votes in each, Montana gets 0.32 – seems fair to me. I can hear the screams already…

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  22. E.A. Blair says:

    What a lot of people don’t realize is that the document that became the first ten constitutional amendments, now called the Bill of Rights, contained not ten, but twelve articles, two of which, had they been ratified in 1791, would have become the first and second amendment. The article which would have become the Second Amendment if the entire bill had been ratified, declared that congressional pay raises would not take effect during the term of the session that approved that raise. It was finally ratified in 1992 as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. The article which would have become the First Amendment, fixed that size of the House (once it reached a membership of two hundred members) as one representative per 50,000 population. Had that been ratified, and not superceded by a subsequent amendment, the House of 2022 would have 6,620 members. This is, of course far ahead of the cube root rule, since 6,620 cubed is somewhat in excess of 290 billion.