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Book of Matthew: The incredible shrinking House of Representatives

Published: February 4, 2011
Section: Opinions


As a Politics major and relapsing political junkie, I’m always happy to see the campus newspapers run pieces about political issues. College students we may be, but it is important for us to discuss what is happening beyond the small confines of Brandeis.

Unfortunately, sometimes these well-intentioned articles fail to do their subject matter justice. Such is the case with Tien Le’s recent op-ed in the Justice (“Idea to expand congress would yield poor results”). I find the issue of expanding the House of Representatives interesting and I was disappointed to see that Le’s analysis did not fully grasp the potential benefits of such a move.

When the Founding Fathers’ designed the House of Representatives, they intended for its number to increase proportionally with the nation’s population. According to Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution: “Representative and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers […]. The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every 30,000, but each state shall have at least one representative.” When the house first convened in 1787, its 65 members represented an average of about 60,000 people each (slaves were considered three-fifths of a person at the time). After each successive census and the addition of new states, Congress voted to increase the size of the House and reapportion its members.

This continued until 1911, when President Taft signed legislation increasing the size of the House to 433 members (with provisions to add two more members when New Mexico and Arizona became states in 1912). During the debate over the bill, some representatives expressed concern that the House was growing too large and unwieldy. Nativist representatives in particular feared the growing political power of recent immigrants who crowded the nation’s urban areas. In 1929, the House passed the Permanent Apportion Act, capping the number of members at 435, where it remains today (though it temporarily increased to 437 members from 1959 to 1961 when Alaska and Hawaii became states). That year, those 435 members represented 121 million Americans; today, the same number represents an American population that has nearly tripled.

Le seems aware of the House’s history, even calling some of the statistics “scary.” She also cites a recent New York Times op-ed that claims that lack of growth in the House has contributed to the increased influence of lobbyists and special interests within the body, as well as a disconnect between representatives and the growing number of people they serve. Yet in the middle of her piece, Le makes a sudden about-face and claims that Congress cannot handle more members. Such an increase, she argues, would result in an inefficient House comprised of too many different views and causes that “cannot realistically be fulfilled.

If that seems like an awkward transition, it’s because Le completely missed the point of what she is writing about. Competing viewpoints are not a hindrance in representative democracy. It’s the job of every representative to take part in the market place of ideas. That’s how representation works.

The problem with our democracy today is that our small House is preventing us from being represented well; in fact, Americans today have never faced worse representation on the national stage.

First, individual House districts are larger than ever before. Current representatives come from districts with an average of 700,000 people—more than 10 times more than in the Founders’ time. With numbers like these, the incentive for representatives to listen to individual voices within their districts is low. Instead of meeting with voters, they choose to meet with wealthy campaign donors and corporate interests who promptly buy influence that the average voter could never attain. In a sense, you can’t blame them. They have a lot of people to reach every two years and they can’t do it all by knocking on doors—that sort of thing requires expensive advertising. But, as a result, grassroots campaigns with less funding face severe disadvantages in elections seasons, and ultimately leave far too many House seats in the hands of paid-for politicians.

If, however, the House could be expanded so more representatives could cover smaller districts, fewer votes would be up for grabs and grassroots campaigns would have an easier time getting their messages across. With money making less of a difference, elections would become more competitive, featuring popular but poorly funded candidates ready to take on entrenched Washington interests.

But even if districts are made smaller, another problem still exists that would not necessarily be fixed without more precise adjustments: House districts are lopsided. For example, Wyoming’s at-large district, consisting of 563,636 people, is almost half the size of Montana’s at-large district, which has 989,415 people, or Delaware’s at-large district, which has 897,934 people. This means that the amount of political influence a voter can have over their representative varies greatly depending on where that person lives. Districts must be divided into not only smaller chunks but also more equitable ones. It’s simply not fair to give the people of one district more control over legislation than the people of another district.

And, speaking of legislation, a larger House would be a better environment for representatives to be more effective lawmakers. Today, representatives are far busier than most people give them credit for. Many sit on multiple House committees—where most legislative work gets done—but they must also find the time to sponsor bills, vote on legislation, oversee government agencies, meet with fellow representatives, make endless phone calls and keep a close eye on their districts in order to maintain a sense of what their constituents want them to do. They rely heavily on staffers whom we rarely see and never get to choose. An increase in the number of representatives could allow them to divide this immense workload so that each one could take more time to work on important issues that they care about. As long as they are held accountable, more knowledgeable representatives will almost always write better legislation.

Le fails to mention any of these important benefits. Instead she focuses, oddly, on the amount of money it would cost the Treasury to pay the salaries of new representatives and to expand the House chamber to make room for them. Considering that the House expansion plan that has gained the most traction is the Wyoming Rule—which would force each House district to be the same size as the nation’s smallest district (currently Wyoming at-large), resulting in approximately 543 House members—we’re not exactly talking about massive expenditures.

In her closing paragraph, Le reminds us: “Not all bodies of government are perfect.” She is absolutely correct. But if we fail to pressure our representatives to serve our interests and to do something that they used to do without question, and if we fail to do all of this because we were afraid to hire a contractor to expand the House chamber—well, then perhaps our political problems are greater than we thought.