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Is Congress Too Small?

With members of Congress so very popular right now in the eyes of the American people -- the latest Gallup poll puts congressional approval at a solid 18 percent -- perhaps the time is right to give the public more of what it loves.

Whether the voters actually want it or not, the argument for a bigger House of Representatives is the basis for a new article by the California-based research center Miller-McCune. Surveying the latest scholarly work, the piece makes the case that House districts now cover so many people that members may not represent their constituents as well as they could, or should.

When the current size of 435 members was established in 1911, each House district covered roughly 200,000 people. Now the average district size is more like 640,000, and the number will keep going up as long as the U.S. population grows without the House growing along with it. Other western democracies like Britain and Germany have larger lower houses of parliament than we do, even though they have far fewer citizens.

So how big should the House be? One study cited in the Miller-McCune piece suggests the chamber could grow by about 50 percent, to 650 members. That would knock each district down to a more manageable 430,000 or so constituents (still more than double the size the districts were the last time the House expanded).

Now, a bigger House might mean lawmakers would be more responsive to helping constituents get their Social Security checks. But would it do a better job on lowering gas prices, dealing with illegal immigration or any of the other tasks that the public currently thinks Congress does terribly? And do angry voters really want a lot more lawmakers making $170,000 per year, airing annoying campaign ads, and finding new ways to become enmeshed in scandals?

Probably not.

Nor does there appear to be a huge appetite on the Hill for such a move. In the 109th Congress, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) introduced a bill "to establish a commission to make recommendations on the appropriate size of membership of the House." The measure picked up just one cosponsor and never even got a committee hearing.

On a selfish level, Capitol Briefing would absolutely LOVE to cover the expansion of the House. As things stand, congressional districts are re-drawn by each state at least once every 10 years following the census, giving governors, state legislators and other political operatives the opportunity to jockey for advantage. Can you imagine the chaos if all of the sudden there were 200-plus new seats to play with?

Unfortunately, Capitol Briefing does not have a vote in the House to help make this happen. Perhaps the 650-member "House of the Future" could include slots for a few bloggers.

By Ben Pershing  |  May 28, 2008; 3:36 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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Since the staffers do the work, why not just increase the office budgets (and DC office space!) so that the offices can pay a decent salary to employ more people to do the grunt work?

Posted by: Former Hill Staffer | May 28, 2008 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I for one think that the House getting bigger might actually be a good thing. Introducing 200 newly elected voices might invigorate that place with a sense of purpose.

Just a thought.

Posted by: policythought | May 28, 2008 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Hmm, interesting idea, and while I'm not actually proposing increasing the size of the Senate, consider how much greater this difference is in that chamber. The entire population of the U.S. was just under 4 million in 1790. The population of New York is now more than 50x what it was in 1790.

Posted by: Will Johnston | May 28, 2008 5:48 PM | Report abuse

One potential benefit of adding the additional members would be to reduce the disproportionate influence of the smaller states in the presidential election. My understanding is that the number of electoral college votes each state has is based on the number of House and Senate members it has, and any increase in the number of seats in the house would result in a proportional increase in the number of representatives from the larger states.

Posted by: Charles Wagner | May 29, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Count me in as one who likes the idea, however if you did this, you'd have to expand the Capitol or build a new Capitol so that you'd have room for everyone. In the long run, it would be worth the cost, I believe, provided that the districts were apportioned fairly and everyone was represented.

Posted by: Jason Platt | May 29, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

The idea of a possible enlargement of the "people's house" deserves the support of serious-minded people throughout our polity. On the very face of it, trying to "represent" 600,000 people, and/or probably 400,000 voters, has become a mounting absurdity. Resistance to the idea of enlargement is, in and of itself, near-proof of the soundness of the idea, if only because it reveals the nakedness of the political self-interest of present-day legislators.
The country deserves better ! One can argue endlessly about the best ratio of numbers between the people and their representatives,but we are ill-served by a Congress that shuts off such a debate.
One would hope that the incoming Congress in January of next year will have the foresight and courage to tackle this problem. It can not afford to contribute to its further public disapproval.

Posted by: Herb Rosenbaum | May 30, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

I think both the House and Senate need some serious reforming and opening up to public scrutiny and accountability. This doubling of numbers is a good start for both. We should also support public financing for incumbents and challengers so that these politicians do not need lobbyist money for reelection. We also need to bring the internet into every stage of the deliberative process so that citizen's input weighs in directly. Enough corruption.

Posted by: public citizen | June 1, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: moulddni | June 6, 2008 4:22 AM | Report abuse

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