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Time to Expand the House?

Size matters. At least, that is the argument of The Washington Post's Danielle Allen in a piece about adding more seats to the House of Representatives that was brought to our attention by reader D.E. in Lancaster, PA.

Allen points out that, first of all, every major democracy in the world except for the U.S. has substantially expanded the size of its legislature since World War II in response to population growth. In the U.S., the Senate has stayed level, excepting the four seats added for Alaska and Hawaii, due to the terms of the Constitution (although an amendment to give each state four senators might actually pass). And the House has stayed level, excepting occasional (and temporary) increases for new states, due to the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929. As a consequence of this, the average member of the House represents far and away more people than legislators in any other major democracy. To put a somewhat finer point on it, the German Bundestag and the British Parliament (to take two examples) both have more members than the House, despite the fact that those nations have less than a quarter of the U.S. population.

Allen proposes four benefits that would come from an expanded House:

  1. Responsiveness: Right now, the average member of the House has over 700,000 constituents. Needless to say, that means that they are not very responsive to any individual constituent, or even any particular group of constituents.

  2. Oversight: The executive branch has gotten much larger and more complex since 1929. And yet, the same number of Congresspeople are overseeing that. More members of the House would mean that members would be spread less thin, and could keep a closer eye on the executive branch.

  3. Money: Smaller districts would require less extensive campaigns, and thus less money. That would hopefully reduce corruption while also lowering the bar for entry, making for a more egalitarian field of potential candidates.

  4. Diversity: Smaller districts would also mean more majority-Black, majority-Latino, majority-Asian, etc. districts, which would mean a more diverse Congress. Alternatively, it would require the makers of gerrymandering software to improve the product.

Allen knows what she's talking about, and we generally think her four points are on the mark. The only one we are not 100% sold on is #3; money tends to go to swing districts in very large quantities. And regardless of how many members there are, there are always going to be a fair number of swing districts.

Meanwhile, one benefit Allen does not touch on, at least not directly, is what might be called de-polarization. Right now, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, there is no "centrist" wing. There are almost certainly members who are centrist by temperament, but if they express that with their words or their votes, they are made into pariahs. See, for example, former representative Adam Kinzinger. If there were far more members in Congress, there would be a much better chance that a viable a liberal wing of the Republican conference and a viable conservative wing of the Democratic caucus could emerge. If it's only a couple of people, it's easy to give them the outcast treatment. If it's 75 people, that doesn't work as well. And if there really was a centrist group within each party, then Congress would operate much more like it did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

Allen does not specify, incidentally, how large she would like to see the House become. Assuming we take the 435 seats from 1929, and increase that the same amount that the overall population has increased, then that would put the House at about 1,175 members. This is roughly the number that is usually bandied about.

So, is there any chance this might happen? Well, it's at least plausible in the sense that it would not require a constitutional amendment (unlike changing the Senate). All it would require is that Congress pass an update to the Permanent Apportionment Act. That said, we see at least three major barriers:

  1. Power Sharing: Generally speaking, when people have power, they are not enthused about the possibility of diluting that power overnight by inviting hundreds more people into the club.

  2. Tradition: Americans are unusually resistant to change, and this would be a big one. One physical manifestation of this, which would be a very big deal, is that the current Capitol building is not set up to accommodate a meeting with 1,000+ people (and even more for joint sessions, as during the State of the Union). Would people be able to tolerate a significant expansion and renovation of the Capitol building? It's happened a number of times in the past, but it would surely be highly controversial today.

  3. Presidential Politics: Fully addressing this point will require an entire item of its own, which we will do in the near future. However, the short version is that influence over the presidential election would shift in the direction of big states and (a little) in the direction of the blue states. There are a lot of members of Congress that would not be pleased about this.

In short, even if it's a good idea, don't hold your breath. (Z)

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