Why We Should Expand Congress

Bloom Briefing 60: Increasing the Number of Representatives Would Be Good for Democracy

Why We Should Expand Congress

Last week, I laid out some of the major structural problems with American democracy.  Based on geography alone, the amount of political power individual voters have varies significantly.  Negative political polarization makes our politics worse.  Money in politics and the centralized power of political parties together fuel negative political polarization and decrease intra-party ideological diversity.  And non-competitive elections make voters less engaged.  One idea to solve some of these issues is to expand the number of representatives. 

Evolution of the Size of the House of Representatives

During the first Congress, in 1789, each member of the House of Representatives represented roughly 60,000 people, many of whom had no real representation because of their gender or status as an enslaved person.  At the time, there was a concern that this was too many people per representative.

Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, James Madison put forward a set of amendments which we know now as the Bill of Rights.  But these proposed amendments actually were 12 in number, not the 10 we know today.  And the first of those proposed amendments was one that would have capped the number people per representative at 50,000.  It failed to pass by a margin of only one state.

Madison was prescient enough to gradually increase this scale over time, starting with a cap of 30,000 people per representative, and gradually increasing as the population increased to 50,000, though he likely didn’t foresee the scale of population growth over the next couple of centuries.  That cap would have resulted in 6,629 representatives after the 2020 census counted 331,449,281 people.

For much of US history, Congress did gradually increase its size.  The first Congress had 65 members of the House.  Over time, this went up to 435 members.  But the last time Congress adjusted its size was 1929, when it permanently capped the number of representatives at the current number of 435.  At that time, this translated to roughly 280,000 people per representative.  The number today is roughly three times higher; members of Congress represent an average of just over 760,000 people each.

Why Smaller Districts Are Better

It’s easy to look at the current dysfunction in Congress and think that adding a lot more representatives into that mix would make it worse not better.  But such a perspective probably misunderstands some of the reasons why Congress is dysfunctional.

Members of Congress aren’t only responsible for legislating; they also help constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy.  Have an issue getting a passport?  Or getting a visa or completing immigration paperwork?  Or getting social security or veterans or Medicare benefits?   Or getting a pandemic-relief loan for your small business?  Your representative can help. 

But over the last hundred years, while the size and scope of government has expanded significantly, the same number of representatives have both more constituents and more agencies and benefits programs to help their constituents navigate.  Smaller districts would thus make it easier for constituents to get help from their elected officials. 

Smaller districts would also facilitate better campaigns and better politicians.  One of the reasons campaigns are so expensive today is the necessity of buying significant advertising.  Smaller districts would make it easier for politicians running for office to personally interact with more of their constituents.  Knowing your representative and your representative knowing you are both likely to make politicians more responsive to voters. 

Smaller districts would also likely diversify the ideology of members of the House.  Because of geographic clustering of like-minded people, districts in dense blue areas in and around cities would likely elect further left politicians, while deep red rural areas would elect their share of Marjorie Taylor Greenes.  But in smaller, more competitive districts, Republicans and Democrats would have to run more moderate candidates. 

Even running more moderate candidates, however, may leave the door open for more third-party candidates to run meaningful campaigns.  (This would be particularly true if paired with some electoral reforms like ranked-choice voting, the topic of a future post.)  The smaller scale of financial resources necessary to run a campaign for a smaller district plus the ability to personally interact with more voters should make it easier for third-party candidates to make more viable runs for office.

Finally, increasing the number of elected officials remedies some of the inequality inherent in the design of our government.  If the number of people per representative goes down, the cutoff points for getting one more or one less representative per state become closer together.  We would no longer have a scenario where Delaware’s one representative had 450,000 more constituents than each of Montana’s two.  Furthermore, it would reduce the amplitude of the thumb-on-the-scale effect of senators in the electoral college. 

How Many Seats to Add?

One school of thought about the best size for the larger of a bicameral legislature or a unicameral legislature is the cube root rule.  Devised by Estonian political scientist Rein Taagepera in the 1970s as an ontological (rather than normative) claim, it suggests that the number of legislators in such bodies was historically proportional to roughly the cube root of the population.  

By this measure, the contemporary United States is a drastic outlier.  Of the OECD countries, the US has the largest gap between the number of seats the cube root rule would suggest (690) and the actual number of elected officials in the lower house (435).  Aligning the size of the House with the cube root rule would bring the people per elected official down from roughly 750,000 to just under 500,000. 

The question we want to ask is: is that small enough?  The smart premise of the cube root rule is that the number of people per representative scales with population growth.  At smaller population levels, you have fewer people per representative, and as population increases, the people per representative does too.  This scaling avoids the scenario where Madison’s 50,000 people per representative cap results in 6,700 representatives (as it would today). 

But at even the cube-root-rule-suggested target of ~500,000 people per representative the US would still have ~200,000 more people per representative than any other OECD country. (Colombia currently has ~300,000 people per representative).  Japan and Mexico are the only other OECD members with more than 200,000 people per representative.  The larger European countries (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain) all range from ~95,000 people per representative (Italy) to ~135,000 people per representative (Spain). 

If we consider the potential goods that come from increasing the number of representatives, it’s not clear that the 255-member increase the cube root rule suggests would bring about districts small enough to seriously realize the benefits.  Even roughly 500,000-person districts would still be expensive to campaign in, would still have wildly unequal sizes between states, and wouldn’t seriously diminish the power of senators counting towards the electoral college votes.  So how much smaller should we make districts?

Another proposal, sometimes called the Wyoming Rule, suggests that the number of people per representative be pegged to the number of people in the smallest district.  In the case of the United States, that would be Wyoming and it’s 576,851 people.  That obviously won’t do.  But what if we layer another plausible electoral goal—multi-member districts—on top of the Wyoming Rule.  Then we take not just the population of the smallest district, but also insist that all districts must have at least three representatives.  That would give Wyoming’s 576,851 people 3 representatives, a ratio of ~193,000 people per representative. 

On a national scale, that would mean a total of over 1,700 representatives.  Obviously, it would be impossible to make that change at once.  Quadrupling the size of the House of Representatives in one go would be disruptive in lots of ways (some of them good!), but would probably generate a lot of objections (we’d need wholly new buildings and rooms, for starters). 

But what if we targeted this change over a longer time horizon, say 20-40 years?  Every two or four years, the number of seats could increase a little bit.  A downside would be having to continuously draw new district maps, which might favor a less linear and more stepwise increase (e.g., adding ~430 members at a time three separate times). 

The logistics are hard, but the idea is sound.  A larger House of Representatives would act as a counterweight against negative political polarization and make elected officials more responsive to the needs of individual constituents.  It would result in some more radical people in Congress, but also more moderates, and the ideological diversity would be valuable.  And at the same time it would ameliorate some of the structural inequalities in our electoral politics.

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Additional Reading (all on the topic of expanding the House):

The New York Times editorial board wrote a two-part series here and here in 2018.

John Nichols in The Nation earlier this month.

David Litt for The Atlantic in 2020.

An academic paper from Fordham Law School’s Democracy and the Constitution Clinic, January 2020.

The Bloom Briefing will be off next week.