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.



  1. 666Actually, a vote in Wyoming is currently actually equal to a vote in New York. Both are irrelevant in presidential elections.

    Presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Instead, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. 88% of the money and visits is focused on just 9 states. Fully 99%of the money goes to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people are merely spectators to the presidential election. No presidential candidate gives a hoot about issues relevant to Wyoming or New York (or two thirds of the states) in the November election.

    The reason votes of two-thirds of the states don’t matter politically is the winner-take-all rule under which all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). Every vote would be equal throughout the United States and every vote would be politically relevant. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill is enacted by states possessing 270 or more electoral votes, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The National Popular Vote bill has 419 legislative sponsors in 47 states. It has been signed into law in Maryland and New Jersey. Since its introduction in February 2006, the bill has passed by 14 legislative houses (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, and California).


    Comment by joreko — March 24, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment, joreko. (I’m going to assume, despite the prefix of your comment, that you are not an agent of the Antichrist 😉

    I’m all for reforming the electoral college, but that’s not as realistic or practical as the House proposal. Two points:

    1. Expanding the House doesn’t require a constitutional amendment. Reforming the electoral college requires either a constitutional amendment or the cooperation of several dozen states (almost as hard as amending the constitution).

    2. Expanding the House has benefits in excess of improving the balance of the electoral college. It improves the balance of the House of Representatives, for one thing—Rep. Cubin of Wyoming has about 200,000 fewer constituents than any of the 29 representatives from New York, but her vote counts the same. There’s also the possibility for more responsible, less corrupt politics

    Comment by Chris — March 24, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

  3. s/responsible/responsive/

    Comment by Chris — March 24, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

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