For nearly a century, the House has been fixed with 435 members. A growing movement in Congress and in think tanks, however, seeks to bump that number up to increase public access to members, improve diversity and reduce workloads for individual members.
In January, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced H.R. 622, the Restoring Equal and Accountable Legislators in the House (REAL House) Act, which would add 150 seats to the House, increasing it to 585 members. “Members of the House of Representatives are their constituents’ most direct connection to the federal government and its resources and services,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of the proactive and local constituent services unique to House members.
However, the number of constituents living in a single congressional district has dramatically increased since the number of House members was arbitrarily capped in 1929.”
The 1929 cap was instituted when the U.S. population was 122 million people. It’s now almost tripled to 328 million, which means the average congressional district now includes nearly 800,000 constituents, according to U.S. Census data. With current population growth estimates, the average district could have a million constituents by 2050.
“Current district sizes threaten the direct constituent connection on which the House was founded,” Blumenauer said. “This growing imbalance makes it more difficult for members to be responsive to the will of the people, and voters are more likely to sit out elections when their voice and input are not fully represented in government.”
Blumenauer used the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of a time when House members were stretched to capacity due to the concentrated, high demand of constituent needs.
A report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent research center, found that the lack of growth has resulted in “serious and harmful consequences for both representatives and the voting public.” For example, the report found, “the connection between constituents and their congresspeople has attenuated, leading to worse representation and bolstering the feeling among voters that their voice does not matter.”
In its report, the organization also recommended adding 150 seats to the House, which would reduce the average constituent size to about 550,000 per member. “The biggest beneficiaries would be the American people, who would benefit from improved representation, as well as the representatives themselves, who would be able to share some of their already massive workload with their new colleagues,” the report authors stated.
The debate around whether or not to expand the House dates back to the inception of the House itself as the Founding Fathers intended for the chamber to be elected by and representative of the people.
Critics warn that a larger chamber could carry negative consequences, including the potential for a longer, more stymied legislative process. More members could make it harder for the House to reach a majority on contentious issues.
Some have also questioned whether the partisan balance of Congress would tip, although the direct results of smaller districts depends on how they are drawn.
On the practical front, a larger House size would also likely require new infrastructure, including a new House chamber and more office space.
“Getting America back to one representative for every 30,000 or even 50,000 constituents would produce a freakishly huge House along the lines of the Galactic Senate in Star Wars,” Kevin R. Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote about the hypothetical reality of trying to restore the constituent-to-member ratio when the House was created in 1789.
More members would also increase the federal budget given the increased number of salaries. Some also argue that with more members, special interest groups with larger budgets to spread over more representatives would have an advantage over less-resourced groups.
Blumenauer is not alone in his attempts to expand the House. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) introduced separate legislation in January that would increase the size of both the House and the Senate. Casten’s bill would use a formula — the U.S. population divided by the lowest state population — to determine the number of House seats.
While the likelihood that either bill would pass while Republicans are in control of the House is low, if they either were to become law, they would not go into effect until after the 2030 census.
For more background, see the September 2019 issue of Supreme Court Debates on “Political Gerrymandering.”