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July 22, 2009

Congress is too small

The size of the US House of Representatives is set by an ordinary law; it's not a Constitutional matter. The number of Representatives has remained at 435 since 1910, even as the population of the US has tripled. The bigger the districts, the harder and more expensive it is to get into Congress, the more remote each member seems from his or her constituents, the harder it is to make districts fit natural or historical boundaries, and the worse are the tradeoffs between giving voice to minorities (racial or partisan) versus representing majorities.

It turns out that the size of legislatures around the world is usually the cube root of the size of each nation's population.* By that standard, our House should have 669 members instead of 435. The House of Commons in the UK has 646 members for a population of 61 million, seven times as many legislators per capita as we've got. The House of Commons generally works fine (the current scandal notwithstanding), so it seems perfectly possible to deliberate and make laws with more than 600 members.

I concede two points: 1) There are more pressing political reforms, such as a fair redistricting process and campaign finance reform; and 2) the very idea of adding extra federal legislators--with salaries and staffs--would probably be unpopular. Still, I think this is an important reform. It will be impossible, for example, to produce fully satisfactory electoral districts, even with a super-fair process, as long as each district is huge.

*Rein Taagepera, "The Size of National Assemblies," Social Science Research 1 (December 1972).

July 22, 2009 9:00 AM | category: none


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