March 22, 2008

The Big House

Filed under: Not Tech, Politics — Chris @ 5:25 pm

Via Matthew Yglesias, the best, most practical government reform idea I’ve ever heard: increase the size of the House of Representatives.

In 1789, the House had 65 members, each representing about 30,000 constituents. That number grew consistently for the next hundred years. In 1913, the size of the House was fixed at 435 members. At that time, each member represented about 200,000 constituents. Since then, the population of the U.S. has more than doubled. The average size of a congressional district is now 700,000 constituents.

Increasing the size of the house and decreasing the average size of a district.would have the following salutary side effects:

  1. It would be cheaper to run for office, making more districts competitive and decreasing the need for fund-raising (and, thus, the influence of money).
  2. It would decrease the influence of individual law-makers, thereby decreasing the amount of money to be gained from corruption.
  3. It would make both Congress and the electoral college (which is based on congressional representation) more proportional and, thus, more little-D democratic.

To illustrate that last point, consider Wyoming and New York. Wyoming has about 500,000 residents, 1 House member, and 3 electoral votes. New York has about 19 million residents, 29 House members, and 31 electoral votes. A vote in a presidential election in Wyoming is worth about 3.7 times as much as a vote in a presidential election in New York. If we doubled the size of the House of Representatives, a vote in Wyoming would be worth only 2.5 times as much as a vote in New York. If we reduced districts to 30,000 constituents each (this is the lower bound specified in the Constitution and would yield a House with more than 10,000 members—picture the Galactic Senate in Star Wars, hopefully with fewer Gungans), a vote in Wyoming would be worth only about 1.1 times as much.

Now obviously that last scenario is not going to happen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the current Congress voting to make any change that would significantly reduce the influence of its own members. But the change doesn’t have to be that dramatic: literally any increase would be a change for the good. And the population keeps increasing, so the problem will just get worse and worse. Why not shoot for, say, 50 new members after every census, with a target of keeping or slightly reducing the current average district size? It would not require a Consitutional amendment: the size of the House is determined by statute, just as the number, size, and shape of congressional districts are.

For more information, check out

P.S. While I’m at it, you may notice at left a badge for Change Congress, a somewhat goo-goo attempt by Lawrence Lessig for create a movement to political reform. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this (just as I wasn’t sure, as much as I admire Prof. Lessig, whether I really though he should run for Congress), but, if it doesn’t cost me anything, I might as well cast my lot with the wild-eyed dreamers of the world.


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