To make the House of Representatives work again, make it bigger

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In 1929, Babe Ruth swatted a league-leading 46 home runs, and the New York Stock Exchange crashed, triggering the Great Depression. Women could finally vote; but blacks would wait decades for the Civil Rights Act.  The U.S. population in 1929 was 121,767,000. While much has changed since 1929, one very important thing unfortunately has stayed the same: the size of Congress. Eighty-nine years later, there are still just 435 members of the House of Representatives.

Our democracy is under attack—by foreign powers like Russia, by fake news on Twitter and Facebook, and by rabid partisanship. Democracy is also threatened by US citizens who don’t vote because they are disenchanted with politics and disconnected from their representatives. Voters stay home when they don’t hear their own voice represented in government or in the candidates running for local, state and federal office. The Washington Post’s tagline is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But antipathy, underrepresentation and a lack of political efficacy slowly kill democracy too.

{mosads}Partisan redistricting (also known as gerrymandering) is routinely decried by both sides of the aisle and is undergoing some isolated reconsideration.  The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in January that the Keystone State’s district maps were unconstitutional, in a move that had national political implications. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the congressional maps in North Carolina and Maryland, declining to opine on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.


Regardless of these and other court rulings, before redistricting can occur, congressional seats must be re-apportioned. This happens every 10 years with the census.

In 1790, the United States population was 3.9 million and there were 65 seats in the House of Representatives. As the nation grew, so did the number of representatives, eventually reaching 435 seats after 1911. This pattern of population growth and reciprocal House growth continued until 1920, when the House failed to apportion after the decennial census because of hostilities between urban and rural states over representation. This was the only time in history that the House did not reapportion. In response, the House passed the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, capping the members of the House of Representatives at 435.

This isn’t a sacred number—in fact, it went up to 437 after Hawaii and Alaska joined the union. But after another reapportionment, it went back down to the current 435. In 1911, each of the 435 House members represented about 212,000 constituents. Today, each member represents about 750,000. In 2050, it is projected that each member of Congress will represent a million or more people. Everything a Congressperson does – from ensuring a Social Security recipient gets her benefits to securing a high school graduate’s place at the Naval Academy to hosting a jobs fair – will become even more challenging or may not get done at all. Americans who depend on their representatives for help will be one of a million – not quite living room politics.

The 435-cap on House members also creates unequal representation among districts. Pew Research Center’s Drew Desilver wrote in May that “The ratios for individual states vary considerably… currently, Montana’s 1,050,493 people have just one House member; Rhode Island has slightly more people (1,059,639), but that’s enough to give it two representatives – one for every 529,820 Rhode Islanders.” Pew’s analysis found that a single lawmaker does not uniformly represent the same number of people; there is a wide and worrying range.

Even in these divisive times, most Americans would likely agree: your level of representation should not depend on what state you happen to live in.

Increasing the size of the House can, in fact, help to fix the issue of partisan gerrymandering. As Sean Trende, Senior Elections Analyst at Real Clear Politics, wrote for the Center for Politics in 2014, “Larger legislatures make it more difficult to gerrymander effectively. Think of it this way: If there are 100 residents in a state with 100 congressional districts, there is no gerrymandering possible. If there are 50 congressional districts, it isn’t impossible, but it is still difficult.”

Increasing the size of the House is a practical proposal that would help American democracy. For Republicans, a larger House gives California the chance to be more reflective of a moderate nation, not disproportionately progressive and Democratic. For Democrats, northeastern states can be better-represented and states like Texas can represent the present and future of America, not the 1950’s caricature the current delegation reflects. Currently, seven states have only a single representative. Democrats and Republicans alike would be better served by these states having more of a voice in Congress – citizens should insist upon it.  A larger House means more accountability, better representation, increased diversity; and it would put a premium on building broader and more inclusive coalitions.

The House chamber would need to be expanded and updated and offices would be added, but that’s not unprecedented. The House floor was remodeled in 1951 and the Rayburn Building was built in 1965.  Vox’s Dylan Matthews concedes that an expanded Congress “would create some space issues in the Capitol” but would bring the United States closer to every other developed nation. For example, in Germany’s Bundestag each member represents 115,817 people. Japan’s House of Representatives has a ratio of one member to 272,108 citizens. Each member of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons represents about 100,000 constituents. Note that even in 1911, Americans still had to share representation with 212,000 of their neighbors—currently, by my own calculation, using the International Parliamentary Union database of legislatures and the United Nations database of world populations, the U.S. ranks 192nd of 193 countries in ratio of citizens to representative (India is last).

The United States has been a beacon of democracy to the world. But today, the beacon has dimmed. Setting aside the current political climate: the very structure of our government undercuts its true democratic potential. To return the People’s House to the people, to make the House work again, it must be expanded.

Israel “Izzy” Klein is Co-Founder & Principal, Klein/Johnson Group LLC. He previously served as communications director of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and of Sen. Ed Markey, and is a founding board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Tags Apportionment Chuck Schumer Ed Markey Gerrymandering representation United States House of Representatives

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