by the numbers

Like you, I’ve been watching the fiscal cliff curb slight indentation and thinking, “My goodness, the House really is broken!” So how do we fix it? Here are three suggestions:

(1) End gerrymandering.
(2) Get stupid amounts of money out of campaigns (Super PACs, etc.).
(3) Increase the size of the House.

Yes, you read that last one correctly. According to the Constitution (you know, that document the Tea Party loves until it is used to help non-white non-males), each Representative should only represent 30,000 people. In the early 20th century, it was decided to cap the size of the House (at least in voting members) at 435. Using 1920 Census numbers, that means each Representative had approximately 244,000 constituents. Today, each Rep has over 700,000 constituents on average.

A few years back, when I was avoiding working on the dissertation, I created a spreadsheet postulating different House sizes and how many Representatives each state would get. I am attaching this spreadsheet now (you will need Excel). I believe I did the math correctly, but will welcome corrections. Check out all the different tabs.


What do you think – time to increase the size of the House? How would it be done? What systematic changes would need to be made to the institution? I have some ideas, which I will discuss in a later post.



  1. The real question here is what is a practical size for such a body? Some psychologists suggest that 100 is the cap for a group where everyone can know everyone else, so, Senate-sized. But do all of our legislators need to know each other well? Probably not. Why was the decision made to cap the House at 435 in the first place? I don’t know, but here are some things that suggest themselves to me: A larger body means that much more office space, staffing, use of expense accounts… it also means, from a mathematical standpoint, a *less* democratic system in some respects, because the vote of the “average” voter is less likely to elect the representative who is the decisive vote on any legislation (the same reason the Electoral College is more democratic than a national popular vote, and the same reason that the World Series is a better indicator than the Super Bowl of the best team in its sport). A larger body also means more “pork barrel” spending as even more representatives try to get things named after themselves. It means a dearth of effective leadership–fewer Tipp O’Neills and more John Boehners–because there would be proportionally fewer opportunities for junior congressmen and -women to work their way into important committee assignments and leadership roles. The group that I can think of that I was a part of that was around the same size was my high school graduating class–488. I thought I knew a lot of my classmates, but a glance back through my yearbook suggests that I didn’t know as many as I thought I did. If I didn’t know them, I certainly couldn’t have effectively negotiated with them from a position of respect, and *that* is what is missing from our political discourse in 2012. Of course, the House of Representatives has usually been a contentious, free-for-all of a chamber, much more so than the Senate–a larger assembly might promote this characteristic even further. To my thinking, though, a chamber of much larger size becomes very impersonal, and has the danger of devolving into either mob rule dominated by a few ideologues (the French National Assembly in the 1790s) or rubber-stamp law-making (the Supreme Soviet of the USSR). Maybe 435 is too big?

  2. I must disagree, though you are correct about office perks and the like. I think we’d be looking at a reduction in staff/office space, more reliance on committees, and the development of experts in certain areas whose views would carry (hopefully) weight beyond ideology. As far as the physical building, who says all 10,000 or so Reps have to actually be in the same place? Four Federal cities/regional capitals have been suggested as a solution.


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