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The Case for the People’s House

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Marc Boyd
June 24, 2022

Since 1913, the size of the House of Representatives has been fixed at 435. But over the last 109 years, the population of the United States has more than tripled. While congressional districts are reapportioned among the states following each decennial Census, the fixed number of seats, along with uneven growth, has led to major inconsistencies in the number of Americans represented by each district. As of the 2022, the smallest House district in the country represents approximately 530,000 people while the largest represents over a million. Such discrepancies hinder the optimal function of our republican system. The size of the House of Representatives should be increased such that each district represents a roughly equal number of citizens.

Unlike the Senate, which was never intended to provide equal representation, the so-called People’s House was founded on the idea that every American should have an equal voice in the Congress. But at present, the numbers tell a different story. With the current average population, each district theoretically represents about 700,000. Due to their low populations, seven U.S. states have only one House district, called At-Large districts. The seven states with At-Large are generally those with populations of less than twice this average. Because of this, both Wyoming with its 2020 population of 580,000 and Delaware with its 990,000 have the same number of Representatives: one. By comparison, Rhode Island, with its population of about 1,058,000, has two districts, each representing an average of 529,000—the two least populous in the nation. Thus, based on the current Huntington Equal Proportions Method of reapportionment, the difference between a state having one or two Congressional seats is a mere 70,000 people.

One proposed method of resolving such discrepancies is the so-called Wyoming Rule, which would reallocate representatives based on establishing districts which are equal in population to the least populous At-Large district—that of Wyoming. Based on the 2020 Census, this would increase the House by about a third, to around 570. Certainly, this would change the complexion of the chamber, but research indicates it would likely increase popular approval of its membership as smaller districts tend to have more highly regarded representatives.

The Founders believed this issue to be a crucial one. In Federalist 52, Madison explains that biennial elections were chosen for the House because of the importance of accountability for the lower chamber and of maintaining the connection between Member and constituent. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, George Washington chose the topic of district size to make his first and only contribution to the debate among the delegates, rising to speak in favor of an amendment to reduce the average population of the proposed House districts from 40,000 to 30,000. This, he felt, would help ensure the “rights and interests of the people.” Following his intercession, the proposed amendment was adopted.

Since then, the size of the House has changed at least a dozen times, including following each of the first twelve editions of the decennial census, and even after the Reapportionment Act of 1929 fixed the size to 435; to accommodate the additions of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union in 1959, the size of the House was temporarily increased to 437 members until the next round of reapportionment took place following the 1960 Census. The same had been done for New Mexico and Arizona in 1912.

Critics of an expanded House argue that further increasing the size of the chamber would harm its efficiency. The logic goes that it is already difficult to find consensus and form coalitions in its current form—would not a larger House also increase these complexities? And how large is too large? To begin to answer these questions, we can examine the most closely analogous legislative body in the developed world: the British Parliament’s House of Commons. That “lower” house, representing a nation of 65 million, about one fifth the population of the United States, has in its current form 650 members, about one for every 100,000 citizens. Similarly, the French National Assembly has 577 “deputies”; the German Bundestag has 736; and the Norwegian Storting has 169 members despite a population of just over 5 million. By any standard, each of these bodies functions at least as efficiently as the U.S. Congress.

Based on the preceding examples, we can draw several conclusions. First, that the framers understood fewer constituents per district to correspond with a higher level of assurance of Americans’ “rights and interests.” Second, that despite being fixed at 435, the House has functioned just fine whenever increased or decreased, and it stands to reason that increasing it by 10, or by 50, even by 200, would present only trivial issues of arithmetic (what constitutes a majority, a quorum, two thirds, etc.) and physical space. And finally, that nations with significantly larger legislative bodies appear at least as capable as our Congress in crafting and enacting legislation. In this era when our republican institutions are under attack, and all possible means of strengthening our system should be pursued, it is past time to consider expanding the House of Representatives to more accurately and faithfully reflect the will and complexion of our country.

Author: Marc Boyd is a Federal civil servant, former Presidential Management Fellow, and has held appointments with the United States Air Force, Space Force, and Department of Housing and Urban Development. He has an MPA from CUNY Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs as well as a BA in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He can be reached at [email protected].

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