Bench Memos

How Big Should the House Be?

The other day in his Boston Globe column, the estimable Jeff Jacoby made the argument that the House of Representatives should be bigger than it is.  At 435 members, it has not been expanded in roughly a century, while the U.S. population has more than tripled in the same period.  Over at the Weekly Standard’s blog, Jay Cost has taken issue with Jeff, arguing among other things that some of the problems Jeff identifies–the appetite for pork, the ease of reelection–might actually be exacerbated by an expansion of the size of the House.

I’ll add two or three cents here, siding with Jay over Jeff.  As I said many moons ago in my series here on The Federalist, the question of the “proper ratio between the representatives of the people in a legislative assembly, and the constituents they represent” was treated by James Madison as something not highly “susceptible of a precise solution,” in his words in Federalist No. 55.  The ratio could not remain the same in a large society as in a small one.  On the one hand, we want to avoid the “cabals of a few” that would occur in too small an assembly, which can happen if each legislator represents a large proportion of a very small society.  On the other hand, we want to avoid the “confusion of a multitude,” which can happen if each legislator represents a small proportion of a very large society.  And we want the House–the more numerous, shorter-termed, more democratic assembly in our bicameral Congress–to be truly representative.  But unlike the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists who made and defended the Constitution in 1787-88 understood representation not to be a mere reflection of the popular will, but a refinement of it through deliberation.  This refinement was more probable where a little more distance was created between legislators and people, precisely through larger constituencies than might be appropriate for a city council or a state legislature.

And the assembly’s own size was considered an important factor.  As Madison said in Federalist No. 58:

[I]n all legislative assemblies, the greater the number composing them may be, the fewer will be the men who will in fact direct their proceedings.  In the first place, the more numerous any assembly may be, of whatever characters composed, the greater is known to be the ascendancy of passion over reason.  In the next place, the larger the number, the greater will be the proportion of members of limited information and of weak capacities.

The result could simply be slavishness to demagogues: “Ignorance will be the dupe of cunnng; and passion the slave of sophistry and declamation.”

Owing to its size, the House is already in need of more constraint by fixed rules of debate than the Senate requires.  Does Jeff propose that the House triple in size, to say 1,305 members?  Or, like some activists whom he cites, would he go for a ratio of 30,000-to-1, giving us more than 10,000 House members?  435 may not be a magic number, but it is hard to imagine the House doing its job better with very many more members than it has now.

As for the injustices of which Jeff complains, it’s hard to know what to make of them.  The fact that some House districts are considerably larger than others–Montana’s one district being 994,000 people, while Rhode Island’s two districts have 568,000 each–is largely the effect of federalism, and the rule that all House districts be contained within state boundaries.  More members might even things up a bit, but never perfectly.  (And to the argument that this violates the “one person, one vote” principle of the Constitution, one might aptly reply that the Supreme Court made up this “principle” out of whole cloth in 1962.)

Do members spend too much time fundraising and campaigning in their very large districts?  Maybe–so do away with silly “campaign finance reform” that restricts them mostly to small donations.  Are our elections too uncompetitive?  Tell that to some of the old bulls defeated last month.  And again the remedy would not be smaller districts, but changes to campaign finance, the seniority system, and other perquisites of office.  Are larger districts easier to gerrymander?  For this there seems to me to be no evidence whatsoever.

The question of the size of the House should be not considered permanently closed.  There is nothing set in stone, nothing perfect, about a House of 435 members.  But expansion should be considered only with great caution, and by small degrees, if any.


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