Would A Bigger Congress Be Better?

Billy House // Published June 8, 2008 in Media General News Service
WASHINGTON -- Has the country outgrown the House of Representatives?

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., wonders if that's so.

Hastings intends to try again within weeks to create a commission that would consider adding to the current 435 congressional seats. Adding more House seats is something that hasn't been done for nearly a century.

"We're getting at the point that where's there's just too many constituents in each district to serve them adequately," said Hastings, who introduced similar legislation last session.

A number of academics, think-tanks, columnists and government-reform advocates agree with Hastings.

Critics of potential House expansion are many, though, including those who ask:

-- Why hit taxpayers with costs of even more salaries and expenses of House members, their staffs and offices, which now total more than $1 million a year per member?

-- Why would elected representatives vote to dilute their own power?

-- Who needs more politicians making an already unwieldy legislative process even more unmanageable?

-- And how would we fit all the lawmakers into one chamber or building?

But proponents suggest that the Founding Fathers would be shocked at how many people each House member now represents in Washington.

They might also be surprised to see how the U.S. House compares to other democratic countries' representative bodies.

For instance, the German Bundestag has one member for every 123,752 citizens, and the Canadian House of Commons has one member for every 103,924 citizens.

But due to this nation's population growth, the average congressional district has more than tripled in size from about 200,000 people to 640,000 since the current 435-seat set-up was established in 1911.

And if population trends continue, each member by 2040 will represent 920,000 residents.

That's a far cry from the 30,000 citizens the original 65 House members in 1789 each represented. The idea was for members to be closely bound to their constituencies.

"It is easy to imagine (George) Washington's horror if he'd known the average district in 2008 would contain close to 700,000 people," wrote Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, in the spring edition of the quarterly, "Democracy: A Journal of Ideas."

"No wonder citizens agree in most polls that 'no one is listening to me and my family'; they likely have never met their member of Congress," added Sabato.

It's not that the U.S. Constitution requires the number of representatives to remain at 435.

In fact, the Constitution only seta a minimum of one House member per state, and a cap that is based on population so that the number of representatives does not exceed one for every 30,000.

Congress, with approval of the president, is free to choose a House size within these boundaries.

So, throughout the 19th Century and until 1911, the House grew along with the nation's population, according to the Congressional Research Service.

After the 1920 census, the House again considered a bill to increase the House size, this time to 483 seats, the minimum so that no state would lose a representative.

But rather than again increase the size, a new idea took root, according to the research service.

Legislation called "The Permanent Reapportionment Act of 1929" was passed, and the 435-seat size was set in law.

Arbitrary? Even before the 1929 act's passage some opponents suggested as much.

"Why not 400? Why not 300? Why not 250, 450, 535, or 600? Why is this number 435 sacred?" asked Missouri Democratic Rep. Ralph Lozier -- in 1928.

"There is absolutely no reason, philosophy, or common sense in arbitrarily fixing the membership of the House at 435 or any other number," he said.

By 1995, however, congressional researchers wrote in a report: "Whatever the motivations, changing the size of the House requires altering a strong 20th-Century tradition."

This summer, the Maryland-based non-profit group FairVote plans as part of its "Fix the House" campaign to raise awareness that Congress' size can be increased.

"From our perspective, bigger is better considering the population growth," said David Moon, the program director of the group.

Moon said people just don't realize it can be changed.

Hastings and Moon say they don't have a specific number of new seats in mind.

But increasing the size of the House, said Hastings, could foster more personal interaction between members of Congress and their constituents, and most importantly, better representation for the American people.

He also suggested the demand to raise so much campaign money would not be as great. That would allow candidates to stump meeting by meeting, neighborhood by neighborhood, even family to family.

Others have thrown out some numbers.

Conservative columnist George Will has suggested 1,000 House members, putting the ratio at about one representative for every 281,000 people.

"To change how politics is played, we must rewrite some basic rules - and more than double the size of the House of Representatives," says Sabato.

Congressional researchers who seek to be neutral suggest other things would happen:

-- A larger House could make the Electoral College more proportional to the U.S. population, while diminishing the relative weight of the Senate's percentage of that vote which combines total Senate and House members.

-- Creating less populous House districts would make the process of constructing majority ethnic and racial minority districts less difficult.

-- Substantial changes would be required in Capitol office building room assignments and in the House chamber's already-cramped seating.

It would also eliminate what has occurred every 10 years with reapportionment, with some states gaining seats and others losing - even though their populations actually have increased, just not as much as other districts.

A larger House would require some additional spending, Sabato and other proponents concede. But they say that legislative operations comprise a small fraction of the federal budget.

Anyhow, they say individual members' staffs could be held constant or made smaller with fewer constituents for each.

Regarding fears that a larger Congress would by unwieldy and never get anything done, proponents note that the House already does most of its work in committee.

And they say fears that no chamber could house a larger House do not take into account modern technology, which would not require members to necessarily be in one location. The notion of increasing Congress' size has been raised in Congress before, including by Hastings in previous bills.

So far, such legislation has not gone far. Hastings' last bill to create a 17-member commission to study the idea attracted just one co-sponsor.
But he remains optimistic.

"It's really something that's needed at this point," Hastings said.

Billy House can be reached at bhouse@mediageneral.com or at (202) 662-7673

Is the United States one of the least representative democracies in the world?

Here's how the U.S. House of Representatives compares to other democratic countries' representative bodies, according to Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who says the idea of increasing the number of seats in Congress should be studied.

British House of Commons: 659 members, or one member per 90,288 people
Canadian House of Commons: 301 members, or one member per 103,924 people
South Africa National Assembly: 400 members, or one member per 108,553 people
German Bundestag: 669 members, or one member per 123,752 people
Australia House of Representatives: 148 members, or one member per 129,521 people
Japan Shugi-in: 500 members, or one member per 253,100 people
Russia State Duma: 450 member, or one member per 324,447 people
Nigeria House of Representatives: 360 members, or one member per 342,605 people
Brazil Camara dos Deputados: 513 members, or one member per 467,190 people
U.S. House of Representatives: 435 members, or one member per 645,632 people
Indian Lok Sabha: 552 members, or one member per 1,836,963 people