By H. Harrison Coleman IV
1929 was an interesting year in American history. The stock market crashed, starting the Great Depression. Al Capone and his gang murdered seven people in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The color TV was first introduced to the public, and the House of Representatives limited its size to 435 forever.
Despite all those more interesting events of 1929 that I could talk about, it's the final event that I’m interested in—and one that I have a problem with. The Reapportionment Act of 1929 limited the number of seats in the House of Representatives permanently, which had never happened before. The House, until 1929, was constantly expanding with the population to ensure a reasonable ratio of congresspeople to constituents.
This was done quite well up until 1929. George Washington signed the first Reapportionment Act, setting the House at the initial number of 105. Every 10 years since then, after every census, the People’s House was expanded slightly to add more seats to best represent the American people. Between 1780 and 1860, the House had grown by 137 members.
After the passage of the 14th amendment, the Black population was counted fully, instead of being subject to the unjust three-fifths compromise. This resulted in the House gaining 50 seats in one year. Even after that massive increase, the House continued to accumulate seats normally until 1911, when it was set to its present number of 435, following the 1910 census.
In 1920, the Republican Party ousted the Democrats from power, and in the face of poor, European immigration and the increasing urbanization of the country, the Republicans knew they were bound to lose their power based on demographics alone if the House were to expand again. So, they refused their duty to reapportion based on the Census of 1920, and kept the House stagnant for nine more years, until they passed The Reapportionment Act of 1929, which stopped the regular expansions and limited the House to 435 members forever.
This freezing of the House’s numbers has led to a myriad of problems. In 1910, the average population of a House district was 210,000 people. Now, it is 710,000 per district. It has made states losing districts a common occurrence as the limited number of districts are shuffled around the map. Before 1929, it was a rare occurrence for a state to lose a district, as smaller states were faced with just a dilution of their Representatives, rather than a total loss of them.
That is why I am of the belief that the House of Representatives could stand to gain some seats—a few hundred more seats, in fact. Our 435 seat lower chamber of Congress claims to represent the people, but how well can one person represent a tract of land with more people than some sovereign countries? The present 435-member House is far too small for our population. Not only has the lack of real representation harmed our nation, but more discreet problems can trace their origins to the size of the House of Representatives.
As our population has boomed, our representation in Congress has remained the same. This has led to our lawmakers becoming more inaccessible than ever. It has also drastically increased the amount of money a House member must raise to stay competitive. An average House member must raise 18,000 dollars every day of their two year terms to stay competitive in their seats.
This has resulted in increasing amounts of congresspeople taking large donations from corrupt special interest groups and lobbyists- having our lawmakers being in the pockets of big business isn't healthy for we, the people. If the membership of the House was increased, the average district population and geographical size would be much smaller and therefore much cheaper and easier to campaign in, leaving an open for third parties such as the Libertarians or Working Families to gain seats in Congress.
There are multiple benefits to having a larger House. For one, it would make getting elected to Congress easier, and therefore makes it more accessible to the average American. A larger House would be harder for party leadership to control- allowing more Congresspeople to vote in their constituent’s best interests, as opposed to whatever people like Nancy Pelosi want.
So, could the House be expanded in the modern age? It would only take a simple act of Congress to repeal the 1929 Reapportionment Act. The real question is whether it should. As the People’s House has become increasingly out of touch with the constituents they’re supposed to represent, more people have become interested in re-expanding the House, and so new methods for better representation have been suggested.
One such proposal is the Wyoming Rule, a method of apportioning seats that fixes the ratio of congresspeople to constituents as being equal to that of the smallest state, which is currently Wyoming.
This method is a radical departure from the old method of just making the House bigger to accommodate a larger population. The Wyoming Rule would have all congressional districts be equal or about equal in population to the state of Wyoming (or whatever the smallest state by population might be in the future). This would create a 547-member House as per the 2010 census, with all but the nine smallest states gaining districts.
As districts shrink in size, the prospect of getting third parties into the People’s House becomes less daunting. Additionally, as the legislature becomes more disorderly and larger, lobbying would be less effective: you’d need a lot more congresspeople on your side to advance your agenda.
To those of you worried about an expanse in the bureaucracy: I understand. The average House Representative hires around fourteen staffers, so assuming that we add 112 seats to the House, there could be as many as 1,680 more people working on Capitol Hill. But this isn’t necessarily as unwieldy or draining on the tax dollars as some of the small government pundits would have you believe. The yearly salary for a Representative and their staff amounts to less than a million dollars per year, meaning that we could add hundreds of congresspeople for a fraction of the cost of almost anything else our government does.
Instituting the Wyoming Rule would bring our legislature up to a ratio of 583,000 people per Representative, a great improvement on our ratio of 710,000.
Despite this, a Wyoming-Ruled House would still be on the larger side, compared to other nations. France’s 577 member Assemblée Nationale, which serves a similar role to the American House, has a ratio of 115,000 per representative. We see this again in countries like The United Kingdom, with a ratio of 98,000 per member of the House of Commons, and Germany, with a ratio of 114,000 per member of the Bundestag.
So that begs the question: should the House be even larger than I suggest? Most other nations have a legislature that approaches 1000. Germany has 709, and the U.K. has 650, after all. Many other methods of drastically enlarging the House have been proposed, such as the Cube Root Rule. TIME Magazine championed this mathematics, based method in a 2018 Idea piece, arguing for the addition of 495 more House members for a total of 930 congresspeople. Failing these ideas, there is one last method of expanding the House—one that Congress would have no say in.
In 1789, the 1st Congress passed twelve Constitutional Amendments and sent them off to the states to be ratified. Ten of these were immediately approved and became the Bill of Rights. One of the two that were unpassed, one was the Congressional Apportionment Amendment, which required that there be a Representative in Congress for every 30,000 people. If this Amendment were ratified today, the House would balloon to around 6,000 members.
To those who think that it's ridiculous that an Amendment from the 1700s could be passed in modern times: it’s not. That other Amendment the Founding Fathers proposed to the Constitution, the one that failed to be ratified ended up being approved 202 years later by the requisite states in 1992, becoming the 27th Amendment. The Congressional Apportionment Amendment, like the 27th, has no built in time limit, meaning that we’re only 27 state ratifications away from having a Mega-House.
As the Congressional Apportionment Amendment has shown, the most ideal size of the People’s House has been a contentious issue ever since the beginning of this country. We, as a country are still subject to the petty political battles that we saw back in 1929- isn’t that ridiculous? It’s time to take a cue from other democratic nations, and set the House’s members at a larger, more reasonable number. Maybe 547 or 930 or 6,000 aren’t the ideal sizes for the House of Representatives, but 435 certainly isn’t, either.