Does the House of Representatives Need More Members?

An interesting find from The New York Times' Peter Baker:

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the House of
Representatives should be enlarged to produce a fairer distribution of
political power. ... A group of voters appealed to the court after a special three-judge
panel in Mississippi last week rejected their lawsuit seeking to at
least double the number of seats in the House in the interest of evening
out the sizes of Congressional districts.

The disparity in size isn't actually that great; most districts fall in the 600,000 to 800,000 range, with only a few dozen districts exceeding or falling below that range. Indeed, most advocates for enlarging the House are less concerned with the population disparity between districts than with the sheer size of each district. As of the 2000 census, the average House member represented approximately 646,000 people. By contrast, when the House first froze its size in the decade following the 1910 census, the average member represented a district of approximately 210,000 people. Large, but not unmanageable.

Then again, it's not clear to me that the current districts are unmanageable, either. Yes, there are some districts that exceed 900,000 people -- Arizona's 2nd Congressional District clocks in at 991,439 people -- and yes, it's also true that the ratio of representatives to citizens is vastly larger than the minimum population ratio established in the Constitution. But the circumstances of a Congress member are vastly different than they were a century ago; House members enjoy large staffs, unlimited trips back to the district, and numerous means of communicating with constituents. House members rely on letters, phone calls, e-mail, and social networking to stay in contact with their constituents. Today's members of Congress might have less face-to-face contact with their constituents than their predecessors, but the opportunities for communication are far greater than they were in the past.

Besides, if you're worried about increasing representation, doubling the size of the House isn't necessarily the best solution. At 870 members, the average district size would still be around 350,000, and it would just increase again for as long as the United States has population growth. As a country, we are at the point where there will never be a small ratio of representatives to persons. Indeed, we should probably worry less about numerical representation and more about substantive representation, which is sorely lacking.

Because of the way we elect House members, it's extremely common for districts to have a large plurality of people who have completely opposing ideologies. It's entirely possible for a district that supported Barack Obama with 45 percent of the vote to have an extremely conservative representative. Millions of Americans have little -- if any -- substantive representation within their areas, and expanding the size of the House won't do much to fix that problem. To take a page from Matthew Yglesias, a real solution would involve increasing the size of the House along with something like multiple member congressional districts elected by proportional vote, to ensure that every area receives some measure of bipartisan representation.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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