Commentaries on Representation

The Blog for Thirty-Thousand.org

Commentaries on Representation

The Blog for Thirty-Thousand.org

The New York Times: America Needs a Bigger House of Representatives

The New York Times Editorial Board and our nation’s founders agree: Too small of a House poses a big danger to our republic!

In two different editorials, the New York Times Editorial Board has recommended enlarging our U.S. House of Representatives. The first editorial, America Needs a Bigger House,1New York Times: America Needs a Bigger House (November 9, 2018) explains that “the House today is far too small, and that poses a big danger to American democracy”. They reaffirmed that position in a recent editorial entitled Gerrymander, U.S.A..2New York Times: Gerrymander, U.S.A. (July 12, 2022)

America Needs a Bigger House

In November of 2018, the Times published a two-part editorial on “how to make the House of Representatives more representative”. Below are some of the excerpts from part one of the editorial in which they make their case for a larger House.

We’re nearly two decades into the 21st century, so why is America still operating with a House of Representatives built for the start of the 20th?

The House’s current size — 435 representatives — was set in 1911, when there were fewer than one-third as many people living in the United States as there are now. At the time, each member of Congress represented an average of about 200,000 people. In 2018, that number is almost 750,000.

This would shock the Constitution’s framers, who set a baseline of 30,000 constituents per representative and intended for the House to grow along with the population. The possibility that it might not — that Congress would fail to add new seats and that district populations would expand out of control — led James Madison to propose what would have been the original First Amendment: a formula explicitly tying the size of the House to the total number of Americans.

The amendment failed, but Congress still expanded the House throughout the first half of the nation’s existence. The House of Representatives had 65 members when it was first seated in 1789, and it grew in every decade but one until 1920, when it became frozen in time.

The bottom line is that the House today is far too small, and that poses a big danger to American democracy.

For starters, how does a single lawmaker stay in touch with the concerns of three-quarters of a million people? The answer is she doesn’t. Research shows that representatives of larger districts are more likely to take political positions at odds with what a majority of their constituents want. These representatives are also ripe targets for lobbyists and special interests, whose money enables them to campaign at scale, often with misleading messages. Special interests are more likely than regular voters to influence policy positions and votes.

Second, the cap on the number of House members leads to districts with wildly varying populations. Montana and Wyoming each have one representative, but Montana’s population — 1.05 million — is nearly twice the size of Wyoming’s. Meanwhile, Rhode Island, which has roughly the same population as Montana, gets two seats. These discrepancies violate the basic constitutional principle of one-person-one-vote, causing voters to be unequally represented in the chamber that was designed to offset the Senate, where every state gets two seats regardless of population.

Third, the size of the House determines the shape of the Electoral College, because a state’s electoral votes are equal to its congressional delegation. This is one of the many reasons the college is an unfair and antiquated mechanism: States that are already underrepresented in Congress have a weaker voice in choosing the president, again violating the principle that each citizen should have an equal vote.

There’s no constitutional basis for a membership of 435; it’s arbitrary, and it could be undone by Congress tomorrow. Congress set it in 1911, but following the 1920 census — which counted nearly 14 million more people living in the United States — lawmakers refused to add seats out of concern that the House was getting too big to function effectively. Rural members were also trying to forestall the shift in national power to the cities (sound familiar?), where populations were exploding with emigrants from farm country and immigrants from abroad.

In 1929, Congress passed a law capping the size of the House and shifting responsibility for future reapportionments onto the Commerce Department. That’s why, more than a century later, we find ourselves with a national legislature far too small to fairly represent both the size and diversity of modern America. This warps our politics, it violates basic constitutional principles of political equality, and it’s only getting worse.

There’s a simple fix: Make the House bigger.

Having correctly described our House of Representatives as “far too small to fairly represent both the size and diversity of modern America”, the editorial proceeds to suggest a modest increase in representation based on an algorithm known as the “Cube-Root Law”. According to the Times, the Cube-Root Law “says that the number of seats in the larger chamber of a country’s legislature should be approximately the cube root of the country’s population”.

Unfortunately, though the cube-root formula is often recommended, it has two serious deficiencies that are little understood. First, the analysis upon which it is based is conceptually flawed. And second, the resulting increase in the size of the House is far too small to reduce the problems it is intended to mitigate.

Gerrymander, U.S.A.

In July of 2022, the Times published an editorial entitled “Gerrymander, U.S.A.” which focused on how massively-oversized congressional districts enable partisan gerrymandering. Of course, there is no doubt that any state’s dominant political party can effectively disenfranchise ideological or ethnic minority communities by gerrymandering them into massively huge congressional districts (a problem which is further explained in Section Five of Thirty-Thousand.org).

The Times editorial observes: “Partisan politicians draw lines in order to distribute their voters more efficiently, ensuring they can win the most seats with the fewest votes”.  Moreover, “extreme partisan gerrymandering is more a symptom than a cause of democratic breakdown. The bigger problem is that the way we designed our system of political representation incentivizes the worst and most extreme elements of our politics”. With respect to this last point, the Times reiterates their previous advocacy for expanding the House of Representatives:

First, expand the House of Representatives. As The Times’s editorial board explained in 2018, the House’s membership, 435, is far too small for America in the 21st century. It reached its current size in 1911, when the country had fewer than one-third as many people as it does today, and the national budget was a tiny fraction of its current size. In 1911, each representative had an average of 211,000 constituents — already far more than the founders had envisioned. Today that number is more than 750,000. It is virtually impossible for one person, Ronny Jackson or anyone else, to accurately represent the range of political interests in a district of that size.

Why are we still stuck with a House of Representatives from the turn of the last century? The founders certainly didn’t want it that way; the original First Amendment to the Constitution, which Congress proposed in 1789, would have permanently tied the size of the House to the nation’s population; the amendment fell one state short of ratification.

Still, as the country grew, Congress kept adding seats after every decennial census, almost without fail. After 1911, that process was obstructed by rural and Southern lawmakers intent on stopping the shift in political power to the Northern cities, where populations were exploding. In 1929, Congress passed a law that locked the House size at 435 seats and created an algorithm for reapportioning them in the future.

A bigger House is necessary to more accurately reflect American politics and to bring the United States back in line with other advanced democracies

To illustrate the problem of gerrymandering, this editorial focuses on the example of Denton, Texas, a liberal enclave 40 miles northwest of Dallas which will be “absorbed into the 13th District and yoked to the conservative Texas panhandle”. However, it should also be understood that because we only have 435 massive congressional districts, many smaller communities will inevitably be subsumed into antithetical districts even in the absence of devious political machinations.

Multimember Congressional Districts

Both of these editorials also recommend implementing multimember congressional districts. This proposal is introduced in the second part of the 2018 editorial.3NY Times: A Congress for Every American (November 10, 2018) And it was reiterated in their July of 2022 editorial, hypothesizing that when “districts are larger and contain three or even five members, they can more accurately capture the true shape of the electorate and let everyone’s voice be heard”.

However, a deeper analysis reveals that switching from single-member to multimember congressional districts would not only fail to solve the problems resulting from our undersized House, it would even exacerbate them to some extent. Though multimember districts may increase diversity, that potential benefit would be more than outweighed by the pernicious consequences of making political campaigns even more costly as a result of further enlarging our already-massive congressional districts—this would force our Representatives to be even more beholden to the Special Interests than they already are!

The Founders’ Solution

The New York Times Editorial Board should be lauded for calling attention to the ruinous consequences of having a House of Representatives which is “far too small”. In an effort to solve these problems, they resort to conventional wisdom: The cube-root formula. Often cited in various reports about our insufficient representation in Congress, the cube-root formula suggests an increase in representation that many assume would produce beneficial results. Unfortunately, an analysis reveals that the resulting increase would be far too small to mitigate the problems consequent to having a House that is “far too small”.

Fortunately, there is a solution which is already required by our Constitution and its Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, the very first Congress proposed a constitutional amendment intended to ensure that the House of Representatives would always be in compliance with that requirement. It is that solution which should be embraced by everyone wanting to eliminate all of the problems and inequities resulting from our grossly undersized House of Representatives.

© Thirty-Thousand.org [published 9/20/22]

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