Commentaries and More Information on Increasing U.S. House Size
Articles, Op-Ed's, and
What’s going on here? After
all, the framers of the Constitution envisioned that the House would
grow in size along with the country’s population. This was supposed
to take place every 10 years as part of the reapportionment process
following each decennial census.
As James Madison wrote in
Federalist Paper 55: “I take for granted … that the number of
representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner
provided by the Constitution.” A number of prominent commentators,
including syndicated columnists George F. Will and Robert Novak, and
Paul Jacob of U.S. Term Limits, have forcefully advocated increasing
the size of the House from its present 435 members.
Americans should be asking a
simple question: Why 435? There is absolutely nothing magic or
sacrosanct about 435. And yet, the public and the media seem to have
grown so accustomed to a 435-member House that we accept it as the
natural order of things, almost as if it was mandated by the
But the number 435, which was
set in 1911 when the population reached 92 million, is completely
arbitrary. The Constitution does not stipulate an upper limit to the
number of representatives in the House. We could just as easily have
535 or 835 members.
Through some legislative
sleight-of-hand following the 1920 census, the House decided,
contrary to established practice, not to increase its size. The
House did by statute what should arguably require a constitutional
amendment — capping its membership at 435.
As a result, after every
decennial census we go through an agonizing process of zero-sum
reapportionment. Based on the latest census data, we determine which
states will lose and which states will gain seats in the
artificially capped 435-member House.
But it doesn’t have to be
this way. Instead of a zero-sum game pitting state against state,
reapportionment could be a much fairer, win-win process if the House
would only lift its self-imposed, cartel-like ceiling on the supply
of representation in America. Call it “supply-side”
Some historical perspective
is in order. In 1789, the very first House of Representatives
consisted of 65 members. Since the nation’s population was roughly 4
million people at the time, each member of the House represented
approximately 62,000 people.
As the U.S. population grew, so too did the supply of representation. By 1911, the year the House increased its membership to the current level, 92 million Americans enjoyed a per capita representation — the total population divided by the number of House members in any given year — of roughly 210,000.
After the 2000 census, each
member of the House will have to represent an average of 650,000
people. Consider that the next time you try to set up an appointment
with your “representative.”
The country has changed a
great deal since 1911. Not only has the population more than trebled
— from 92 million to 281 million — we’ve also seen a dramatic and
long-overdue expansion of the voting franchise.
Consider the changing nature
of the electorate since the 1920s — with women’s suffrage, the civil
rights and voting rights movements in the 1960s and the reduction of
the voting age to 18 in the 1970s. These changes mean that a much
higher proportion of the total population is eligible to vote and to
demand representation than ever before.
Compared with other
established democracies, a 435-member House is decidedly on the
cramped side. The British House of Commons, for instance, has 651
members who represent a population of about 60 million. The French
National Assembly consists of 577 members for about 60 million
people. Only the smaller countries of Europe, with populations well
below 20 million, have national legislatures smaller than our House
The House prides itself on
being “the People’s House.” But the reality is a far cry from that
ideal. The country has effectively outgrown our old 435-member
House. It’s like a starter home for a young couple. Once the kids
arrive, it’s time to get a bigger house. In the past 90 years the
American family has added lots and lots of kids. So it’s time to
enlarge the House to give our growing and diverse population greater
access to the representation they deserve — the level of
representation envisioned in the Constitution.
If the House of Representatives refuses to raise its OPEC-style, self-imposed and self-serving ceiling of 435 members, the representation-starved American people should raise the roof!
Matthew Cossolotto was an aide to former Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas.) and former Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), and is the author of The Almanac of European Politics and vice president of the Center for Voting & Democracy in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. He can be reached at www.fairvote.org.
As a result of the 2000 Census, Connecticut is losing one of its six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The people of Connecticut should object.
Every 10 years, right after every decennial census mandated by the Constitution, the country goes through this agonizing process of zero-sum reapportionment. Based on the latest census data, we determine which states will lose and which states will gain seats in the 435-member House of Representatives.
Ironically, Connecticut will be reduced to the same number of representatives that it had in the very first Congress in 1789. But with five representatives out of a total of 65, Connecticut had much more political clout in the early days of the Republic than is the case today. More broadly, the New England states comprised roughly one-quarter of the representatives in the First Congress. Now the region constitutes less than 6 percent of the House.
Why is Connecticut losing representation? The answer is simple. Connecticut and nine other states are being stripped of representation because the House decided unilaterally back in the 1920s to cap its membership at the arbitrary level of 435.
In 1911, when the House first reached a membership of 435, Connecticut had five representatives. Connecticut's population at the time was 1.1 million people, which translated into about 250,000 people per representative. The state's population continued to grow in the 20th century. The 1990 census recorded 3.3 million people in Connecticut. Finally, Connecticut was awarded an additional seat in Congress, bringing its total to six. Even with the additional member, however, the number of people per representative - both in Connecticut and nationwide - had soared to 550,000.
With the loss of that sixth seat this year, Connecticut's per-capita representation rate will grow to more than 680,000. This is the direct consequence of capping the House membership at the arbitrary level of 435 members. But there's nothing magic or sacrosanct about the number 435. It's not mandated by the Constitution.
In fact, there's a good argument to be made that the framers of the Constitution fully expected the House to grow in size after each census. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 55: "I take for granted ... that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution."
The public and the media seem to have grown so accustomed to a 435-member House that we accept it as the natural order of things. But the Constitution does not stipulate an upper limit to the number of representatives. We could just as easily have 535 or 635 members in the House. Increasing the House by 100 seats this year would shake up Washington more than any other election reform proposal now being contemplated. It would spread access to representation and power to more women and minorities than any other single action.
The country has changed a great deal in the past century. Not only has the population almost quadrupled to 281 million in 2000; we've also seen a dramatic and long-overdue expansion of the voting franchise. Consider the changing nature of the electorate in the past 100 years - with women's suffrage in the 1920s, the civil rights and voting rights movements in the 1960s and the reduction of the voting age to 18 in the 1970s. These changes mean that a much higher proportion of the total population is eligible to vote - and to demand representation - than ever before.
Despite surging population growth and the expansion of voting rights in the 20th century, the 435-member House has stubbornly refused to grow with the times. As a result, the number of people seeking access to representation has gone from bad to worse.
The per-capita representation (PCR) rate compares very unfavorably with that of other mature democracies. The British House of Commons, for example, contains 659 members representing a nation of some 60 million people. That gives the United Kingdom a PCR rate of a mere 91,000. The 577-member French National Assembly represents 59 million people, for a PCR rate of 102,000. It's rare to see a healthy democracy with a PCR rate that exceeds 200,000, let alone anything approaching our current 650,000.
Instead of rolling over lamely on this one, Connecticut and those nine other "loser" states should fight to increase the size of the House.
If that happens, we could turn our decennial zero-sum game of reapportionment into a win-win for our democracy.
Matthew Cossolotto, a former special assistant to then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright, is the author of “The Almanac of European Politics” (Congressional Quarterly, 1995) and vice president of the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy.
To the Editor:
Re "Census Costs States Seats in Congress" (news article, Dec. 29):
The population of New York State has grown since 1990, but apparently this will not keep the state from losing two seats in the House of Representatives.
New Yorkers should push for an increase in the total number of House seats so that New York loses no more than one.
Until 1910, the number of members in the House was adjusted on a regular basis. There is no magic to 435, the current number. Like the use of poorly functioning voting equipment, this is an example of how we accept our electoral rules and practices too easily.
It is time for a comprehensive review of our democracy.
With two fewer votes in the electoral college, Republican George W. Bush would have been tied with Democrat Al Gore.
If no candidate wins an electoral college majority, the presidential race goes to the House of Representatives, where each state's delegation casts one vote.
Mr. Bush likely would have won such a House vote, but he might have ended up with Joe Lieberman as vice president. The vice president is chosen by the Senate, which by January will be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. If senators voted along party lines, the tiebreaker would be cast by current Vice President Gore.
Any attempts to scrap or reform the electoral college face the daunting task of a constitutional amendment. But Congress could pass a statutory change to prevent an electoral vote tie by changing the number of House members. From 1790 to 1910, the number of House members changed nearly every decade. In 1911, for example, the number was increased from 391 to 435. But there it has stayed, except for a momentary upward blip after Hawaii and Alaska were given statehood.
The timing of a change in House size is ideal. States are girding themselves for battles over reapportionment and redistricting. There is no magic to having 435 members. At the least, House size could be raised to 436 to prevent an electoral college tie.
Some might worry that an even number of House seats would allow each party to win an equal number of seats. But the Senate survives with an even number of seats, as did the House at times.
Paul Jacob's "Common
As George W.
Bush prepares to exchange the pleasures
Eleven states lost congressional seats during the 2002 round of reapportionment. Two states, New York and Pennsylvania, lost two seats. With a small expansion in House size, many of these states would not suffer a loss of representation in Congress.
Currently, there are 435 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives. By adding seats to the House (in the left column), this chart shows which states, in order, would gain (or maintain) congressional seats.
New House size State Result
Gain 1 seat