Thursday, January 17, 2013

Q Day 9: Big House?

Writer asks:
At what point does the growth of the population demand (require/suggest/whatever) that the House expand? What logistical challenges exist? I see that politically, there would be little chance of anything but a doubling to 870, but that would require a massive increase in office space in an already crowded area of DC. Still, the number of constituents per Representative has to peak at some number, right?
Ah, an old Plain Blog favorite. My position on this is that a Big House (of Representatives) is an intriguing idea, but ultimately a bad one.

Basically, once you have over 100,000 constituents in your district, I'm not sure how much it matters for representation whether it's 500K or 500M. Well, at least whether it's 500K or 5 million. Either way, you're not going to be personally interacting with very many of them.

What a big House would do to the governing of the House, however, isn't any good. It would mainly produce more backbenchers -- folks who would have no real responsibilities (or opportunities) for legislating beyond just showing up to vote. That's already a problem with the House, and it's one that increasing the size would almost certainly make worse.

American democracy works best when individual Members of Congress do serious legislating; that's the whole point, the whole advantage, of having separated institutions sharing powers. Much better to have a huge district with a Member who actively tries to represent the district and has some capacity for action than a much smaller district with a Member who can do little more than vote with the party on the floor or in committee.


  1. A larger House would have effects on the Electoral College which could have made a difference in close races--specifically in 1876 and 2000. See my post at

  2. I don't think it should be portrayed as an issue of Representatives having a manageable constituency, but rather of large states having their correct representation, in proportion to the least populated state.

    I.E.: The least populated state needs a Representative in the House. The largest state, if it's 55 times larger than the smaller state, needs 55 members. That's not the way it is now. But, I think that if you did the math (I have an excel sheet somewhere...), it ends up being way less than double the size.

    1. Eh. The way the Senate is allocated is a huge big deal; that Wyoming gets slightly more clout in the House than CA-23 really isn't.

  3. I think it's amusing that people use the word "large" followed by "870."

    There's a building nearby that regularly hosts meetings for a reasonable number of people, including Redskins games. It seats 91,704. The population is about 312 million, so that's 3.5k people/rep, call it 1000 families per rep. That's well within the range of personally talking to everyone.

    The office space argument is specious. You don't need to provide anything other than place to vote, and even that isn't really a hard requirement. (You may need the place to vote, but it doesn't have to hold all the reps at the same time)

    1. I should add that I'm not proposing this as a _good_ idea, just that ideas about size tend to be on the really small side. And there's also the problem of the constitution saying you can't go smaller than 30kPeople/Rep, so that would mean 11k or so members of the house instead of my 90k.

    2. Well, if they needed the office space they'd find it, and I suppose you could always bulldoze the Capitol and the House side and start over, but again: what matters is the kind of institution you're creating. If you had a >1K House you might as well not bother with legislative staff, because they're not going to do any legislating. Which, again, seems to eliminate the whole point of representation.

    3. Why wouldn't they do legislation? No one thinks of a 10k employee company as particularly large; why should we think that a 10k legislature would be so unwieldly? If anything, I'd guess it would be the opposite: they'd end up with more legislation, because there would be outside groups creating it and pushing it on members. With no staff to lean on, seems like outside groups would have more power.


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