The Case for Enlarging the House of Representatives
When the framers of the U.S. Constitution laid out their plans for the federal government, the House of Representatives was designed to be the chamber closest to the American people. The House was by far the largest part of the government and its representatives were the only federal lawmakers elected directly by the populace. Hence the chamber’s nickname: “the People’s House.”
Fundamental to the House’s status as the most purely democratic part of the government were the relatively small sizes of congressional districts. Congressmen (and at the time they were all men) were meant to serve in Washington while also remaining intimately familiar with the issues facing their constituents. To maintain this representativeness, the House grew as the nation grew, from just 59 members in 1789 to 435 in 1913.
In 1929, however, an act of Congress stopped the expansion of the House. Over the last century, this often-overlooked measure has resulted in a House of Representatives that has become less and less connected to the voting public. The average number of constituents per congressional district has exploded: from around 35,000 constituents per district in the 1790s to 210,000 in the 1910s to 762,000 in 2020. Within the next few decades, the average congressional district may boast nearly one million Americans. This trend poses a series of challenges to American government. Congresspeople are meant to represent all of their constituents. It is much more difficult for representatives to connect with a significant percentage of their constituents when they represent so many people, and it is much more difficult for constituents to feel that their voice—and their vote—matters when they are just one of 762,000. Congress, too, has more responsibilities than ever before, leaving representatives overburdened and overscheduled. Many Americans—such as veterans and, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, small business owners and employees—need regular assistance from congressional offices, which are currently inundated with requests from massive constituencies. A smaller supply of seats also intensifies the advantage certain types of congressional candidates have over others. Large districts favor incumbents as well as wealthy and well-funded candidates. Large districts also make it harder for a wide variety of challengers—including racial minorities and third-party candidates—to be elected. The size of congressional districts, then, has helped result in a Congress that falls far short of representing the country’s ideological and demographic diversity.
If the House of Representatives is to live up to its role as the People’s House, something needs to change.
This report makes the case for expanding the House of Representatives to bring the American people a little closer to their government, and their government closer to them. The Case for Enlarging the House of Representatives is an independent byproduct of Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, the final report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.1 The Commission represents a cross-partisan cohort of leaders from academia, civil society, philanthropy, and the policy sphere who reached unanimous agreement on thirty-one recommendations to improve American democracy. The report takes as a premise that political institutions, civic culture, and civil society reinforce one another. A nation may have impeccably designed bodies of government, but it also needs an engaged citizenry to ensure these institutions function as intended. As a result, Our Common Purpose argues that reforming only one of these areas is insufficient. Progress must be made across all three. To build a better democracy, the United States needs better-functioning institutions as well as a healthier political culture and a more resilient civil society.
The proposal to enlarge the House of Representatives is the very first recommendation in Our Common Purpose. Expanding the House would not just reform one of the nation’s oldest political institutions: it would help reduce barriers between voters and their representatives, in the process helping to restore trust in American government. Additionally, the Commission notes that an important benefit of House enlargement would be the corresponding expansion of the Electoral College. The addition of seats to the House would help reduce the underrepresentation of larger states in the election of the president. However, while Our Common Purpose preliminarily suggests the addition of fifty seats, the report notes that a “precise number” of additional seats “should be established through vigorous discussion and debate.”2
To that end, the American Academy convened a working group of scholars, thought leaders, and former elected officials and congressional staff to investigate proposals to enlarge the House. The working group debated the principles that should undergird a House expansion formula, surveyed extant proposals for House expansion, and discussed the possible outcomes of expansion.
This report was informed by those conversations and by the theory of change outlined in Our Common Purpose. Part I explains the history of the House and how it was capped at 435 seats. Part II describes the principles behind representative democracy and how an expansion would help the chamber better embody those principles. Part III lays out an original proposal for the addition of 150 seats with gradual expansion in future years, while Part IV outlines other possible expansion formulas. A major concern related to House enlargement is how partisan control of the chamber would be affected. In Part V, we offer modeling of ten thousand simulations of the 2020 election at various House sizes, which indicate almost no change to the partisan control of the House or to Electoral College outcomes following House expansion. Part VI illustrates the degree to which the capped U.S. House is an outlier compared with other countries, and Part VII explains four other Our Common Purpose recommendations that could be paired with House expansion.
Debates about the size of the House were a common part of American political discourse for the first 142 years of the nation’s history. Since 1929, they have largely disappeared. This report makes the case that the expansion of the House should represent a priority for democratic reform, one that would bring the chamber in line with the framers’ vision and help build a Congress that can better represent the diversity of the American people.