A Bigger House Won’t Heal Congress

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters )
More politicians aren’t what the American people want or need.

What’s the solution to a dysfunctional Congress that appears incapable of passing major legislation and has been rendered almost powerless by the ever-expanding administrate state? If your answer is to expand the House of Representatives by 158 seats, and to create multi-member districts with “ranked voting” — where each voter lists his candidates in order of preference — you may be a member of the New York Times editorial board.

That’s the solution the Times put forward in a special two-part editorial replete with maps and mathematical formulas to justify its plan. According to the paper, the changes would mean a House that better serves its constituents, more competitive districts, and a voice for Democrats who live in red areas and vice-versa.

Indeed, there are arguments to be made for this scheme. But it takes a special sort of faith in government to believe that more politicians and a more cumbersome method for electing them is the prescription for what ails Washington. After several election cycles in which the American people have expressed their disgust with the political establishment and the permanent governing class that camps in the Capitol like an occupying army, it takes chutzpah to claim that expanding their numbers — along with the staffs, salaries, and benefits that go with each member of the House — is key to making the system work.

To be fair, the least of all possible objections to the plan is the money it would cost. As the first of the two editorials on the subject argued, the cost for each new House member and his assorted hangers-on is approximately $1 million per year, which is chump change in terms of the total federal budget even if it’s a lot of money to an individual American.

But the Times’ claim that 158 new members would cost no more than “five F-14 fighter jets” was illuminating for a couple of reasons. First, it speaks volumes about the mindset of liberal editorialists: They think the government gets more bang for its buck from politicians than it does from the armed forces. Second, apparently no one on the editorial board knows that the F-14 (best known for its prominent role in Top Gun) was last produced in the early 1990s and was retired from the U.S. Navy twelve years ago.

It’s entirely true that the Founders would be surprised to know that the average population of a House district is now about 750,000. In 1787, they set the baseline population per district at 30,000. (This is done by statute; the Constitution does not require a specific number.) Over the following century, the number of House seats was expanded every decade with the publication of a new census, though the population per district also went up. The last expansion took place in 1911, creating 435 districts with an average population of 200,000.

In order to maintain the 1787 standard in a country of approximately 326 million, we’d have to have a House with 11,000 members. To match the 1911 standard, we’d need 1,600 representatives. Even the Times knows those figures are too high, so instead it uses a formula in which the number of representatives is equal to the cube root of the country’s population (the method used in Denmark to calculate the size of its parliament).

It’s true that no one person could possibly see to the needs of so many people. But the problem of constituent service in a country that has grown, urbanized, and introduced numerous forms of mass communication over the centuries won’t be solved by an expansion of the House. Congress stopped adding members because it recognized the body was already becoming too large to function efficiently. Further, each individual member already has little influence in a body of 435, a problem that expansion would exacerbate.

The Times has something of a point about the large populations of current districts and the imbalances created by the fact that each state is entitled to minimal representation. (That is, several states have fewer than 750,000 people but still get a full House seat.) But no matter how many members are added to the House, complete equality will remain elusive.

More dubious is the Times’ claim that its scheme will create more competitive districts and end the current plague of region-by-region one-party dominance. According to the paper’s calculations, congressional expansion by itself (without ranked-choice voting or multi-member districts) will create 150 tossup districts where, at least in theory, either party could win. That’s a big increase over the current 45. This sounds like a bipartisan fix that would produce more moderates.

But the new system would also turn vast sections of the country in the South and the West that are mostly red into a more diverse patchwork. By the Times’ own count, it would cost the Republicans 21 “safe” seats but the Democrats just seven. While the editorial asserts that the changes would create more political balance when applied across the nation, Republicans are likely to be less happy with the results. (And don’t forget, House seats also factor into states’ Electoral College votes.)

Multi-member districts with ranked voting have a better chance of achieving political balance, precisely because they would give both parties seats in states and regions where they currently have none. But there are also unintended consequences. The authors assume a stable two-party system in which Republicans and Democrats will remain the sole players throughout the country. But by allowing more political minorities to gain representation, the new system could also promote third parties that are more extreme. That would, as it does in other countries where more-proportional representational schemes are used, create more political instability and make it harder to obtain a majority.

But even if these plans could lead to more competition for more seats, they mistake the symptoms for the disease.

The disease isn’t so much the rise of ideological politics, a phenomenon that dates back to Newt Gingrich’s ending of a 50-year Democratic reign in the House — which was in no small measure a justified reaction to the go-along-to-get-along spirit of Congress at the time. Rather the disease is Congress’s abdication of power over the course of the 20th century as the administrative state — the unelected bureaucrats running various agencies — replaced the legislative branch as the true maker of American laws. That left the Supreme Court as the only check on an out-of-control executive branch.

Creating an even larger occupying army of politicians in Washington won’t fix that problem. The populist revolution that has transformed the Republican party under Trump, and that may yet spread to a Democratic party whose restive left wing is just as sick of D.C. power brokers, is rooted in resentment of the governing class. The idea that the country needs more such people, no matter how they are elected, demonstrates just how out of touch the liberal elites at the Times have become.


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