And yet, for just that reason, it is time to expand the House. The framers of the Constitution assumed we would do that regularly, but we have now failed to do so for more than a century. In the first Congress, there were just 65 House members, each of whom represented about 30,000 Americans. As the nation grew, the House expanded by statute after every decennial census throughout the 19th century. It reached its current size in 1913, when each of its 435 members represented about 210,000 people. But the number of members has not increased since then, even as the country’s population has more than tripled. Each member now represents about 760,000 Americans. And that has changed the very meaning of representation in Congress.
Today’s vast districts put more distance between members and constituents in ways that tend to impose shallow, polarized, national frameworks on our society’s complex political topography. Members therefore tend to abstract away from their constituents — and those constituents know it.
In 2008, political scientist Brian Frederick found that — even given the relative uniformity of House districts — the smaller the district size, the more likely citizens were to have contact with their representatives and reach out to them for help, to think their representatives did a good job keeping in touch with the district, and to approve of their representative.
As former tea party Republican congressman Keith Rothfus put it recently, as “the number of people represented by a single member increases, each American’s voice in government grows smaller. Expanding the House would amplify those voices in our national government, thereby returning a greater measure of sovereignty to the people.”
More House members representing a finer-grained political diversity could also make meaningful intraparty factions more likely, and with them a greater possibility of legislative bargaining and accommodation across party lines.
Of course, any expansion would need to recognize that the House is intended to enable face-to-face bargaining, so it can only grow so large. How large? A group of scholars — including the two of us — convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently considered several options. In a new report, we recommend adding 150 seats, taking the House to 585 members. The chamber would then continue to grow with every decade’s census, following a formula roughly intended to ensure that no state loses seats, as was done throughout the 19th century.
That would immediately reduce the number of Americans represented by the average member by a quarter, yet the resulting House would still be a manageable size — smaller, for instance, than Britain’s 650-member House of Commons. Such an increase (that would modestly add new seats without taking away existing ones every decade) could plausibly appeal to the existing Congress, which would have to enact it.
Of course, this would not be a silver bullet for what ails the House. But it would improve representation while also yielding several other important benefits.
For one, it would rebalance the electoral college a little, since each state’s delegation is equal to the number of its members of Congress. That would modestly reduce the overrepresentation of less populous states in the electoral college, though its practical effect on election outcomes could not be easily determined in advance — and therefore, like the expansion of the House itself, it would not advance any simple partisan calculus. In fact, we found that a larger House would not have any predictable effect on which party controlled the House, and that enlarging the House this way half a century ago would not have altered the result of any presidential election since. An expansion would reinforce the legitimacy of the existing system, not manipulate electoral outcomes one way or another.
And expanding the House could shake loose opportunities for further congressional reform. Adding 150 members all at once could open a path to rebalancing members’ relationships with their leaders, reconsidering the role of the committees, and rethinking the budget process that is now at the heart of Congress’s dysfunction. It could also encourage states to experiment with new modes of election for the House, within the bounds of the Constitution.
There is no shortage of reform ideas, but they are often stymied by a lack of will, rooted in a sense that things can’t change. Creating a breakthrough moment by strengthening the ability of members to represent their constituents could improve the odds that the 2020s will be a decade of renewal and reform in Congress, rather than another era of exasperating partisan spectacle.
Oddly enough, addressing our frustrations with the members of the House might just require making more of them.