Alcee Hastings, the charismatic dean of Florida’s congressional delegation, died last Tuesday at the age of 84. During his 28 years in the House of Representatives, Hastings was a reliably left-wing Democrat, and there probably weren’t many issues on which I would have shared his point of view. But I was interested to discover that one of his last legislative acts was to draft a bill aimed at expanding the size of the House — a gutsy stand in a body whose members tend to jealously protect their power and perks.
“We have not addressed House membership in over a century, despite a growing population and an overwhelming amount of evidence illustrating the need for reform,” he said on introducing the measure. “It is high time we examine representation to ensure the people’s House truly reflects those we serve.”
Exactly right. The House of Representatives is way too small. Making it a lot bigger would make it a lot better.
At first blush, the notion that enlarging the House could possibly improve anything might seem perverse. After all, millions of voters believe, with reason, that their representative on Capitol Hill doesn’t speak for them, doesn’t care about their views, and doesn’t have any understanding of their lives.
Yet with just 435 congressional districts for 330 million Americans, how could it be otherwise? On average, each House member represents nearly 760,000 constituents. What kind of representation is that? What lawmaker can maintain a meaningful connection with more than three-quarters of a million people? Academic research confirms that legislators with larger constituencies are less accessible to ordinary voters and more likely to take positions those voters don’t share. The bigger the district, the less any individual constituent matters — unless that constituent is a major donor or party activist, or is tied to an influential interest.
When the first Congress took office in 1789, the House of Representatives numbered 65. The nation’s population was 3.9 million, so each congressional district comprised about 60,000 people. James Madison and others strongly felt that 65 representatives was not nearly enough. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison had worried that so few House members would not inspire confidence, “and would be too sparsely taken from the people to bring with them all the local information which would be frequently wanted.”
Fortunately, the Constitution empowered Congress to augment the House as needed. So after the 1790 census, the number of representatives was upped to 105. Following the 1800 census, it was expanded again, to 142. Ten years later, it grew to 182. For more than a century, that was the pattern: As the people grew, the “People’s House” did too, though since the latter didn’t quite keep pace with the former, the constituents-to-congressman ratio gradually rose. After the 1910 census tallied 92 million Americans, the size of the House was boosted to 435. Each representative then had, on average, about 200,000 constituents.
There it stopped. Following the 1920 census, Congress gridlocked over enlarging the House, because rural and Southern members resented the growing clout of the cities, with their millions of recent immigrants. The number of House members was locked at 435, and it hasn’t budged since. With no new districts to accommodate a skyrocketing population, the number of residents per representative has soared to 760,000. If nothing changes, by 2050 the average House member will represent 1 million constituents.
In virtually no other country do legislative districts contain so many people. In Japan, each member of parliament’s lower house represents 270,000 voters — one-third as many as in the US House. In Australia, the average constituency encompasses 150,000 people. In France, it’s 115,000. In Britain, 98,000. In Sweden, 28,000.
The final 2020 census numbers have not yet been released, which makes this an ideal moment for Congress to rectify its 1920s-era blunder and dramatically expand the House of Representatives. No constitutional change is required — with a simple statute, Congress could triple, or better yet quadruple, the size of the House. Take it up to 1,500, and each district would shrink to about 200,000 constituents. That would return Congress to roughly the ratio of a century ago.
A bigger House with smaller districts isn’t a panacea for everything that ails American politics. But it would certainly help.
For starters, it would drastically reduce the cost of running for office. With many fewer voters per district, retail campaigning would become more important, while expensive mass advertising would be less effective. The pressure on incumbents to fundraise compulsively would subside. At the same time, congressional races would become more competitive: “Challengers would need far less money to make their stand, relying on foot power more than . . . barrels of cash,” writes political scientist Larry Sabato. “With candidates making their cases individually to more voters, incumbency would matter somewhat less, and upsets would probably be more common.”
Because smaller districts would be more distinctive, candidates from nationally underrepresented groups would be much more likely to get elected. Congress would grow more diverse. State delegations would become less monolithic: Blue enclaves within red states (and vice versa) would have a better chance of sending their own member to Congress, rather than being neutralized through elaborate gerrymandering.
An expanded House would mean an expanded Electoral College. With so many more representatives, the disparity that currently benefits the smallest states would evaporate. It would become virtually impossible to win the presidency while losing the popular vote — and Americans could finally bury a major bone of contention.
To be sure, 1,500 representatives could not fit in the current House chamber. But in a society now accustomed to working remotely and conferring online, why would they need to? The trappings of the Capitol aren’t essential to the job of a representative. The neighborhoods and communities of the district are.
A 435-member House may have sufficed in 1910. It is wholly inadequate now. The sooner we supersize it, the better.