Commentaries and More Information on Increasing U.S. House Size


CVD Reports

Articles, Op-Ed's, and Editorials

The Hill
America has outgrown the House of Representatives
By Matthew Cossolotto
November 21, 2001

The 2000 census has highlighted an important issue — the woefully inadequate size of the U.S. House of Representatives. New York and Pennsylvania are slated to lose two House seats while eight other states — Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — will lose one each.

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 Constitution.

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” representation.

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 of Representatives.

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.

The Hartford Courant
Fight For A Bigger House
By Matthew Cossolotto
October 7, 2001

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.

New York Times
Letter to the editor from Rob Richie:

New York in Congress
December 31, 2000

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.

ROB RICHIE
Executive Director
Center for Voting and Democracy
Takoma Park MD

Washington Post
Letter to the editor from Rob Richie:

December 19, 2000

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.

ROBERT RICHIE
Executive Director
Center for Voting and Democracy
Takoma Park MD

Paul Jacob's "Common Sense" Column
U.S. Term Limits
Weekly Commentary #174

"More Politicians?"

Even in good economic times, Americans are unhappy
with our government. So when someone suggests that
what we really need in Washington are five times
as many politicians as we have today, well, my
first thought is, "Are you crazy?"

But that's exactly what Bob Novak advocates in his
new book. Novak says let's increase the U.S. House
from 435 members to 2,000. But cut the salary of
each representative to one fifth what we now pay.

It would mean that instead of representing 500,000
people, a congressman would represent about
100,000 people. More personal campaigning and
fewer TV ads. A candidate without much money would
have a better chance to speak directly to voters.

Instead of spending over a million dollars on
their office and paying congressmen more than
$140,000 a year, they'd get only $200,000 on their
office and $28,000 for salary.

Are career congressmen likely to chop their own
personal power to do what's best for the country
and the institution of Congress? Nope. But they do
talk a lot about taking the big money out of
politics. Well, if they're serious, this is one
way to do it without destroying the First
Amendment and handing incumbents the power to
regulate their opponents.

Increasing the number of congressmen would
strengthen the connection between the
representative and the individual citizen. I never
thought I'd say it, but we could use more
congressmen. They would represent us better.

This is Common Sense.  I'm Paul Jacob.

George F. Will Syndicated Column
Congress Just Isn't Big Enough
January 14, 2001

As George W. Bush prepares to exchange the pleasures
of rusticity at his ranch for the capital's political climate that he vows to improve, here is a proposal for doing so: Increase the size of the House of Representatives to 1,000 seats.

Today's number, 435, is neither written into the Constitution nor graven on the heart of humanity by the finger of God. It was set
by a 1911 statute, which can be changed in a trice.

In 1910, when America's population was 92,228,496, the ratio of representatives to citizens was one for every 212,999.
The House has been 435 members since 1912 (except briefly after Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, when there were 437 representatives until after the 1960 census).

The first Congress had 65 representatives for about 3.9 million Americans, one for every 60,000. Not until 1860 did the ratio top one for every 100,000. Today the ratio is one for every 646,947. In 1790 only Virginia had that many residents (692,000). Today, four states (Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming) do not have that many. So now representatives, whom the Founders intended to represent smaller numbers than
senators, represent more people than most senators did in the Founders' era.

If there were 1,000 representatives today, the ratio would be one for every 281,000, about what it was in 1930. Candidates could campaign as candidates did in the pre-broadcasting era, with more retail than wholesale politicking, door to door, meeting by meeting. Hence there would be less need for money, most of which now buys television time. So enlarging the House can be justified in terms of the goal that nowadays trumps all others among "progressive" thinkers -- campaign finance reform.

Much of the political class and the media, with the special
irresponsibility each brings to campaign finance reform, saluted and swooned in admiration when John McCain recently vowed promptly to force action on his reform bill. The swooning saluters were undeterred by the fact that the contents of
McCain's bill had not yet been -- and still have not been -- divulged.

However, one of Bush's published reform proposals, although potentially hugely important, goes largely unremarked. It would
ban lobbyists from making campaign contributions to any senator or representative while Congress is in session. This, even more than the seating problems in a 1,000-member House, would be a powerful incentive for Congress to have
shorter sessions.

Critics will say, correctly, that the House chamber
cannot seat 1,000 members, that it would be crowded and uncomfortable, that office space would be so severely rationed that staffs would have to be trimmed, so the House, and therefore Congress, could not do very much. Sensible people would be dry-eyed about such conditions, which would encourage representatives not to tarry here.

Besides, congestion would be constructive. The greatest democratic statesman of the last century understood this.

On May 10, 1941, an air raid badly damaged the House of Commons, which moved its sitting to the House of Lords. On Oct. 28, 1943, Winston Churchill delivered a short, brilliant speech concerning reconstruction. "We shape our buildings," he said, "and afterwards our buildings shape us." Hence he said that the House "should not be big enough to contain
all its Members at once without overcrowding, and that there should be no question of every Member having a separate seat reserved for him."

In a House that could accommodate everyone, most debates would be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty chamber. (As any viewer of C-SPAN knows, this is the case in the House of Representatives today.) But, said Churchill, good parliamentary dialogue -- quick, informal,
conversational -- "requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency." Besides, the House's vitality and its hold on the nation's imagination "depend to no small extent upon its episodes and great moments, even upon its scenes and rows, which, as
everyone will agree, are better conducted at close quarters."

Of course, the House of Representatives will not more than double its size, thereby diluting the majesty of membership and the power of each member. In truth, there are reasons for not doing so, including considerations of sheer cumbersomeness.

Nevertheless, it is well to acknowledge arguments for enlargement. They point to possible connections between institutional attributes and the tone and quality of representative government, which, as the president-elect has repeatedly said, has room for improvement.

Chart on States and U.S. House Growth

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

436                              Utah                            Gain 1 seat
437                              New York                    Lose 1 seat, not 2 438                              Texas                          Gain 1 seat
439                              Michigan                     Maintain size

440                              Indiana                        Maintain size

441                              Montana                     Gain 1 seat

442                              Illinois                          Maintain size

443                              Mississippi                 Maintain size

444                              Wisconsin                   Maintain size

445                              Oklahoma                   Maintain size

446                              Pennsylvania              Lose 1 seat, not 2

447                              Oregon                       Gain 1 seat

448                              Maryland                    Gain 1 seat

449                              Kentucky                    Gain 1 seat

450                              New Jersey               Gain 1 seat

451                              Washington state      Gain 1 seat

452                              Connecticut                Maintain size

453                              South Carolina           Gain 1 seat

454                              Kansas                       Gain 1 seat

455                              Arkansas                    Gain 1 seat

456                              Nevada                       Gain 1 additional

457                              Delaware                    Gain 1 seat

458                              South Dakota            Gain 1 seat

459                              Idaho                          Gain 1 seat

460                              North Dakota             Gain 1 seat

461                              Alaska                        Gain 1 seat

462                              Vermont                     Gain 1 seat

463                              Wyoming                    Gain 1 seat