The Agenda

Do We Need to Reform the House of Representatives?

I tend to think that we don’t have enough members of the House of Representatives. We’ve had 435 members since 1911, yet the population has increased threefold in the decades since. Some, including Jonah Goldberg, have called for increasing the size of the lower chamber dramatically, doubling it or more. I tend to think 650 would be a good number, one that would bring us in line with democratic legislatures in Britain and Germany. The trouble is that it is difficult to create and maintain working relationships in a body much bigger than that, and the U.S. population will continue increasing for many years to come. 

The usual argument for expanding the size of the House stems from the enormous size of today’s congressional districts, which now contain an average of 640,000 people. But in 2006 Bruce Reed, CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, called for creating more at-large districts for the House.

A recent bipartisan proposal to give new House seats to both the District of Columbia and Utah averts a mid-decade redistricting battle by having the new Utah member run statewide. Why not go all the way and turn half of all House seats into at-large districts? If half of every congressional delegation had to run statewide, it would sharply reduce the potential for gerrymandering, and every member would have to compete in a bigger, less homogeneous district.

Such a system would probably have little or no predictable impact on the partisan breakdown of the House. In the seven small states with at-large members today, both parties have done proportionally better at breaking the red-blue barrier in the House than in the Senate. Two of the five at-large House members from red states are Democrats, compared with just 16 out of 62 senators from red states. One of the two at-large members from blue states is a Republican, compared with only nine out of 38 senators from blue states. 

This doesn’t strike me as the ideal reform, and Reed’s article includes a great deal of anti-DeLay sentiment that I find unconvincing. But I do think we’d be better off if there were more Republicans elected from Democratic states and more Democrats from Republican states, which is one possible outcome of the proposed reform. Free-market conservatives based in cities like New York and Chicago might have a decent chance of winning statewide and bringing their distinctive views to bear on national debates. (I have a bias here, obviously.) 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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