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Is it Time for the House to Expand?

1:30 PM, Dec 27, 2010 • By JAY COST
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At the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby makes the case for expanding the size of the House of Representatives:

For most of American history, the size of the House was adjusted upward every 10 years. The initial 65-member House prescribed in the Constitution was expanded to 105 members after the 1790 Census, to 142 members after the 1800 Census, and so on through the 19th century. Following the 13th census, in 1910, Congress enlarged the House to 435 members — and there it has remained, even as the number of Americans has more than tripled, from 92 million to 308 million. Ever since, the apportionment process has been able to allot new House seats to the fastest-growing states only by taking them away from states growing more slowly. One result is that many states have more voters, but fewer US representatives...

The larger districts grow, the less representative lawmakers become. Since 1910, the average number of constituents per House member has climbed from 210,000 to more than 710,000. Over the same span, members of Congress have grown more remote, more undefeatable, more beholden to special interests, and less capable of reflecting the diversity of their districts’ values and views. Smaller, more numerous districts, would be far more democratic, more accessible to new blood and new ideas, and more difficult to gerrymander.

It is kind of "ludicrious," as Jacoby puts it, that each House member now represents a district about the size of Charlotte, North Carolina. Even so, don't expect Congress to change the size of its membership any time soon. The biggest reason?  As Jacoby notes, "few members of Congress will voluntarily dilute their own power."  Right now, every representative has about as much power as 1/4 of a senator. Increasing the number of House members would only reduce the power of a representative relative to a senator, and that is not something House members would ever be willing to do.

Beyond this, there are reasons not to support this idea. For starters, the House already has a problem with localization. The incentive structures of the House -- wherein members win reelection every two years by appealing to 1/435th of the nation -- already promote particularism without much by way of a time horizon, i.e. spend today on the district and worry about the long term effects after November. This is a big part of why the country has such a budget deficit and entitlement crisis. Increasing the number of House members might exacerbate this problem.  For instance, consider all the pork that has to be distributed annually just to make the place function -- this subcommittee chairman must be satisfied, that floor voter has to be bought off, and so on. If we increase the number of representatives, we'll also increase the threshold for getting a bill passed, which means we might end up seeing more of this kind of behavior. 

A larger House might also change the behaviorial incentives for members, possibly exacerbating certain bad habits that they already have. Put simply, a smaller constituency base might actually make each member hungrier for pork. The smaller a district, the more political power each dollar of pork possesses. Today, the "bring home the bacon" strategy is only one part of a member's approach to reelection -- districts are so large nowadays that members cannot rely on pork alone to secure victory. But what happens if they perceive that just a handful of strategically placed projects in that smaller district could provide the credibility boost to secure reelection? In that case, there would be no need to worry about good public policy. A bridge here, a road there, and reelection is in the bag. Similarly, in smaller districts a specific industry, employer, or voting bloc might dominate, making the local member more captive to that special interest. The nice thing about districts the size of Charlotte is that it's rare that one group or interest amounts to a majority; with a bigger House and smaller districts, that could change.

I share Jacoby's sentiment that the House of Representatives is not terribly representative any more, but I think that increasing the size of the chamber might actually end up making it less so. I think the only sure solution for long term change in the House is for the American electorate to start paying more attention to what its members are doing. For too many decades, the story of House elections has been that the incumbent holds the overwhelming advantage -- members who win election to the House are exceedingly likely to win reelection, regardless of whether they deserve it. Is it any wonder, then, that the House of Representatives has become so unresponsive to the people's interests? The battle over Obamacare was a great case in point -- it was almost as if many House Democrats simply couldn't believe that a vote against their constituents on such a salient issue would lead to their defeat. Who can blame them for thinking this way? For decades, House members have essentially been able to do what they have wanted without fear of losing their jobs!

More than anything else, that is what needs to change -- and the best to change this is for people to start paying more attention to what their government is doing, and voting out members who aren't getting the job done. (This includes greater attention to primaries, a lever of power that the public rarely uses. It's high time for parties to start policing the members who have the privilege of carrying the party label in government.) The size of the House won't affect its responsiveness to the needs of the public so long as the public is ready, willing, and able to reelect their members regardless of desert. On the other hand, if members start to realize that voters are watching them carefully, they'll be more responsive to their constituents, even if there are nearly 750,000 of them.

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