The new Congress is sworn in on January 3, 2019.

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Should the House of Representatives Be Expanded?

For generations now, high school students have had to memorize the same pair of stats about Congress: 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives. There have always been two senators from each state, but until the 1920s, Congress increased the size of the House every decade, right after the census. The idea was to keep the chamber in sync with the country’s growing population. Gradually, the House grew from its original 65 members to 435 after the 1910 census.   

It hasn’t changed since. In 1929, Congress passed a law setting the size of the House at 435 members. But a growing number of experts are urging lawmakers to seriously consider expanding the House again. Two political policy experts—one from an organization that advocates for electoral reforms and another from a conservative think tank—face off about whether enlarging the House of Representatives is a good idea.

The House of Representatives, which is often called “the People’s House,” was intended by the Founders to be the closest of all the branches of government to the people who elect them. But that’s not how it functions today—and that’s in large part because the size of the House hasn’t kept pace with our population.

In 1790, each member of Congress represented fewer than 40,000 people. Today, each member represents about 710,000 people. That’s because for more than a century—since 1910—we haven’t increased the size of the House. As our population has ballooned—it’s now triple the number recorded in the 1910 census—representatives have grown further and further away from ordinary people. We need to fix this.

A larger House would mean each member has fewer constituents, and that would mean that members are more in touch with those they represent and better able to serve their needs in Washington. Representatives with fewer constituents already tend to have higher approval ratings and be seen as more in touch with voter concerns than those with bigger districts. This is important to boost confidence in our government at a time when many Americans have lost faith in it.

A larger House would make members better able to serve voters.

A larger House would also facilitate other reforms. It would make it less expensive to run for office, because candidates would have smaller districts. And having more representatives could also make it easier to draw districts that ensure minority representation more fairly.

Some people worry that a larger House would make it harder for Congress to function. But Congress already does most of its work by splitting into smaller caucuses and committees that work on bills before going to a vote by the larger body. Sure, if the House had thousands of members, that would be too many. But that’s no reason to stick with just 435 people serving a population of more than 300 million.

Adding representatives won’t solve all our problems, but it is a simple way to make Congress work better for voters.


Law and Policy Director, FairVote

Expanding the House of Representatives beyond its current 435 members is a bad idea for several reasons.

For starters, adding more people to an already large chamber is a recipe for chaos. Imagine a House of Representatives with 1,000 or more members. It would be completely unmanageable, and it would be hard to get anything done with that many competing voices and conflicting agendas. Making the House less productive would make it less representative of the people, not more.

Another problem with this idea is that it would make it harder to attract good, qualified people to serve in the House. James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution for his role in writing our founding document, believed the House should be full of people known for their “wisdom . . . patriotism and love of justice.” If we expand the House, why would such people ever want to run for office? They would not be able to wield any real power there. Already, each member of the House has less than a quarter of the power that each senator has. Increasing the number of representatives would mean that each member of the House would have even less power.

A larger House would be completely unmanageable and therefore ineffective.

It might also make it easier to corrupt members. There are currently about 710,000 people in the average House district—big enough that no one interest or faction can dominate everybody else. But the more we shrink each district, the more likely it is that one group—maybe a company with many employees or a particular religious sect—makes up a majority, meaning that the representative effectively works for them rather than the public at large.

So imagine a larger House of Representatives—more chaotic and filled with shady characters. The other branches of government—the Senate, the president, and the Supreme Court—are not going to want anything to do with such an unreliable partner. Instead, they’ll do everything they can to strip power from the House.

Expanding the size of the House, far from making the chamber more fair and effective, would make it less so.


Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

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