David Trimmer is a staff writer and a second-year MPA student.
Since 1913, the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives has remained at 435. In that time, the average number of constituents each seat represents has more than tripled, going from 223,505 in 1913 to around 760,000 today. The U.S. has a higher population per seat than all democracies except India, and each district is expected to represent over one million people by 2050. The inability of the House to adapt to the population increase over the past century has led to unequal representation, lack of diversity and unresponsiveness between congressional members and their constituents. Increasing the number of seats in the House of Representatives would ensure greater fairness in America’s electoral system, promote diversity and boost congressional responsiveness.
Issues with 435 and How Expansion Can Address Them
The rapid growth of congressional districts is causing unequal representation for American citizens. The average population of any congressional district is now larger than three states: Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska. Therefore, these states are overrepresented as their citizens have more power to elect their representatives than people in districts around the average size. For example, California has around 761,000 people per seat, but Wyoming has only 578,000 people for its one congressional seat. In essence, the people in Wyoming have 1.3 times the power to elect their representative than people in California.
Furthermore, district sizes can also lead to underrepresentation. Delaware, for example, has a population of 991,000, which is larger than the average district population of 760,000. However, Delaware’s population is not high enough to warrant a second district, so the entire state only gets one representative. Montana, however, only has around 93,000 more people than Delaware but has two districts. This means Montana’s two congresspeople represent 542,000 people each — nearly twice what the Delaware congressperson represents.
By increasing the number of seats, the representation problem becomes less severe, which can be seen in this interactive on FiveThirtyEight (see screenshots below). The more seats added, the closer all states get to the national average. Additionally, larger states would gain more seats, reducing the unfair advantage some small states currently have in the Electoral College. According to the Fordham University School of Law, “expanding the House mitigates parity disadvantages and cabins the small-state advantage in the Electoral College to the two-vote baseline, which is the advantage the system was originally intended to confer.”
While improvements have been made in recent years, the composition of Congress does not accurately represent the U.S. population. Congress is whiter and older than America as a whole, and members are far more affluent than the average citizen. In addition, the advantage of incumbency has prevented many candidates from other backgrounds from winning a seat in the House. However, by expanding the House of Representatives, there would be new open seats. This would allow women, people of color and younger generations to have a better chance of winning seats in Congress and be better represented.
Additionally, House representatives can serve on as many as two committees and four subcommittees, which can overburden congressional members and prevent them from spending time listening to their constituents’ thoughts and concerns. This is one of the reasons approval for Congress has plummeted in the past few decades. By increasing the number of people in the House of Representatives, members of Congress would no longer need to be on so many committees and have more time to interact with their constituents.
Ways to Expand
While there are many reasons why the House of Representatives needs to be expanded, there is a question of how to accomplish it. Currently, there are two notable proposed methods to expand the House. The first is called the smallest state rule. The idea behind the rule is to set the size of a congressional district to the population of the smallest state. Currently, the smallest state is Wyoming, with a population of 576,851, according to the 2020 census. This would yield 573 seats, a 32% increase from the current number. While this idea will improve representation and create many open seats, there is one key drawback. The number of seats is entirely dependent on just one state. Therefore, if the population of the smallest state changes drastically, so would the number of House seats. Luckily, there is another method that avoids this disadvantage.
The second idea is the cube root rule. Under this system, the number of House seats would be determined by taking the cube root of the United States’ total population. Based on the 2020 census, the cube root of the U.S. population is 692 when rounded to the nearest whole number. The cube root rule improves upon the smallest state rule as it would increase the number of seats by 59% and create more equal representation. Additionally, the number of seats in the House would be dependent on the size of the entire U.S. population rather than just one state. Therefore, there would likely be less volatility in the number of House seats as the country’s population will grow gradually over time. As the population grows, so will the number of seats, preventing the number of constituents per seat from growing too large. Therefore, the federal government should strongly consider implementing the cube root rule to expand the House of Representatives as it will boost fairness, diversity, and congressional responsiveness in the most efficient way.
This piece was edited by Deputy Editor Gio Liguori and Executive Editor Lancy Downs.
Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash