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Is the House of Representatives Too Small?

Lee Drutman // Published May 14, 2008 in Miller-McCune
For the first 13 decades of its history, the U.S. House of Representatives was an ever-expanding institution. From 65 members in its vintage 1789 configuration, the lower chamber grew steadily with each new census count, accommodating the growing population of the country.

But a bigger House also meant a more unwieldy House. And so in 1911, Congress somewhat arbitrarily decided that 435 was enough already and set the number down in a statute. The House had gotten as big as it was going to be.

And so it has been ever since, even as the country has more than tripled in size. The average U.S. congressional district now contains roughly 640,000 citizens, as opposed to about 200,000 in 1911.

With so many people to keep up with, do relationships between the representatives and their constituents inevitably begin to fray? And if so, does this mean that the so-called "people's house" isn't really living up to its name anymore?

Brian Frederick, a professor of political science at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, thinks that things are heading that way. His research shows that as districts get bigger in population, constituents are less likely to report that they had contact with their member of Congress, less likely to think their member would be helpful, and less likely to favorably evaluate their member of Congress (and more likely to see their member as out of touch with the district).

These findings confirm what most theory on representation already suggests: Members from larger districts should have a harder time connecting with and thus representing their constituents. But until Frederick combined National Election Survey data with district and member characteristics, there was no solid empirical evidence to back it up.

Based on such findings, Frederick said he is now convinced that increasing the size of the U.S. House would, on balance, be a good idea. "It would make it easier for members to serve fewer constituents and a more homogenous constituency," he said. "It would allow for smaller geographic areas. There is something to be said for that kind of connection between members and their constituents."

It would also likely lead to better minority representation in Congress, Frederick noted, because it would create more majority-minority districts. (The representation of minorities lags behind their percentage of the general population. The U.S. population is 12.8 percent black and 14.4 percent Latino, but 9.4 percent and 5.1 percent in the U.S. House, respectively.)

But if the U.S. House were to add seats, how many should it have? Arend Lijphart, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and a comparative scholar of democratic institutions, has argued for 650 seats.

That figure is based on the so-called "cube root law" of Rein Taagepera, who figured out that taking the cube root of a nation's population provided a remarkably good predictor of the size of that nation's lower house. By that logic, the U.S. was an outlier on the low side, with a House of 435 instead of the 669 that would now be expected given the U.S. population of 300 million. (Lijphart made his 650-seat recommendation in 1998, when the U.S. population was at 275 million.)

"When one looks at democracies around the world," Lijphart said, "there is a tendency for larger countries to have larger legislatures and smaller countries to have smaller legislatures. But we have a lower house with 435 members, which is less than both the British House of Commons and the German Bundestag, and Germany has 80 million people and Britain has 60 million people." (The Bundestag has 613 members; the House of Commons has 646 members and is slated to grow to 650 by the next election.)

On the other hand, the bigger the institution, the less smoothly it often operates. Generally, in larger institutions it becomes more challenging for members to get to know and trust each other, which in turn makes it more difficult to build the coalitions and consensus essential for smooth functioning.

"There is a fundamental trade-off," Frederick explained. "If you cap a representative institution at a number, you are sacrificing representation to some extent. Ideally everybody in a democratic society would represent themselves, but we know that's impractical. From an efficiency standpoint, it would be easiest to have one person make all the decisions. So we're trying to find some balance between that impossible dichotomy."

Among political reformers, meanwhile, pushing to increase the size of the House is a "sleeper of an issue," according to Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a national voting rights and democracy reform group. "People just haven't realized it can be changed."

Richie says he frequently uses the size of the House as an example of institutional inertia, and to show that there are some things that we just don't stop to think about. But with the 2010 census and subsequent redistricting coming up soon, Richie said that his organization plans to try to increase the profile of the issue.

The issue has been raised in Congress on occasion. Frederick said that what initially piqued his interest in the subject was hearing Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., complain how hard it was to represent 600,000 people. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., has regularly introduced legislation to create a committee to study the size of the House, as did former Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., though such legislation never really gained much momentum.

Public opinion also isn't particularly gung-ho on this reform. Frederick has done his own polling on the issue, and he found that only about 20 percent support increasing the size of the House, whereas 60 percent favor keeping it the same and 20 percent favor decreasing the size.

However, if people are asked if they'd support increasing the House so that no state would lose a seat following a census count (as frequently happens), support for the proposition goes up to 33 percent. And if people are asked whether they would support increasing the House to improve representation of minorities and women and create more open seats generally, support goes up to 48 percent, though almost all the support comes from Democrats, women and African Americans.

"You're asking people to support more politicians, to pay more salary, and to many people that may not be an easy cost to bear," Frederick said.

In other words, don't expect to see a mass popular uprising demanding a bigger House anytime soon. But as members themselves come under more and more strain from representing larger and larger districts, and as good government groups perhaps take a second look at this issue in advance of the 2010 census and subsequent redistricting, perhaps, for the first time in a century, this country will be ready for a serious discussion about whether the House of Representatives can still be the "people's house" when districts are as big as they are today.