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The Hill

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

The 2000 census has highlighted an important issue ˇ 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 ˇ Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin ˇ will lose one each.

WhatÝs going on here? After all, the framers of the Constitution envisioned that the House would grow in size along with the countryÝs 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: ýI take for granted Í that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution.ţ 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 ˇ 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 doesnÝt 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 ýsupply-sideţ representation.

Some historical perspective is in order. In 1789, the very first House of Representatives consisted of 65 members. Since the nationÝs 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 ˇ the total population divided by the number of House members in any given year ˇ 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 ýrepresentative.ţ

The country has changed a great deal since 1911. Not only has the population more than trebled ˇ from 92 million to 281 million ˇ weÝve also seen a dramatic and long-overdue expansion of the voting franchise.

Consider the changing nature of the electorate since the 1920s ˇ with womenÝs 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 ýthe PeopleÝs House.ţ But the reality is a far cry from that ideal. The country has effectively outgrown our old 435-member House. ItÝs like a starter home for a young couple. Once the kids arrive, itÝs time to get a bigger house. In the past 90 years the American family has added lots and lots of kids. So itÝs time to enlarge the House to give our growing and diverse population greater access to the representation they deserve ˇ 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 .

 
 
 
 
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