Refactoring Democracy

Part 4: Obstacles to a Larger House

This is Part 4 of a six-part series on our Representation in the United States.

In Part 1, we reviewed the history of American apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. In Part 2, we examined how the Act of Permanent Reapportionment dealt a fatal blow to American Democracy. In Part 3, we evaluated various methods for calculating optimal Representation. Today, we’ll cover key challenges to increasing our House size.

Increasing the House by even 100 seats would shake up Washington more than any other single election reform proposal debated in the past 46 years. It would spread access to representation and power to more women and minorities than any other single political act in history. A larger House could invigorate a sense of liberty not felt since the American Revolu—

Stop Right There. Congress Won’t Do It.

Every notable political institution and special interest will resist or outright oppose any serious measure to add seats to the House in order to guard their authority and traditions. Incumbent Representatives from both houses, the Republican Party, Democratic Party, multinational corporations, labor unions, the executive branch, and foreign governments all have a vested interest in keeping the system and district math the way it is. Lifers don’t want to leave until they’re ready, the party duopoly doesn’t want to let third parties into the equation, and absolutely no one wants their power diluted.

Averting risk of future failed reapportions was not the only reason the 71st Congress capped the House at 435 in 1929. Representatives made many excuses then and continue to make the same arguments to this day.

We already have too many politicians!

The thought of adding more politicians into government would make most Americans throw up in their mouths a little bit. We’re already supremely unhappy with Congress, so why on earth would we make it bigger…on purpose?! Indeed, it seems a paradox that more politicians would net us a smaller government. Without adding seats, Representatives must hire more and more unelected bureaucrats to help keep up with the pace of district growth. More and more people we did not elect will continue to exact supreme influence over the way this country is run. Without question, we do not want any more politicians. But we should all want better representation.

How can so many people work effectively together?

Incumbent Members would have you believe that adding more players into the mix will make an already cumbersome legislative process less efficient. Those of us who have worked for bigger companies feel this pain. In larger institutions, it becomes much more difficult to acquaint yourself with and trust your peers. Without trust, no one can build consensus or work together to get anything done. Former Census direction Kenneth Prewitt fears that, with more seats, “you may create a more equitable system that’s less governable, and I’m not sure the country comes out ahead.”

However, this argument hardly holds up when you factor in that the House today operates primarily through fixed-size committees. Aside from making the process of whipping votes more challenging, nothing fundamentally changes about the processes of legislation after enlarging the House except perhaps more bills to vote on. Which isn’t a bad thing. If anything, as highlighted in part 2, an increased House sized means more committees and more work getting done. And given that the rest of the world’s democracies seem to be doing fine with larger proportional House sizes, we have little to fear…especially in an age ripe with connectivity tools.

Where would everyone fit?

One of the longest standing arguments against increased House size revolves around the physical space limitations of the House chamber itself. Way back in 1920, The New York Times made the case that “for physical reasons, if no other, the growth of the House can’t be allowed to continue indefinitely.” Incumbent Representatives today would argue that more Members means more uncomfortable working conditions, curtailed office or meeting space, and room only for much smaller staffs to the point where it would adversely affect productivity (as if Congress was optimally productive now, hah).

Can the House fit thousands of Representatives? No. But it can fit a lot more than 435. Just look at attendance for the State of the Union every year: not only 435 Representatives, but also 100 Senators, all nine Supremes, the six poor non-voting Representatives, 14 Cabinet members, the Vice President, senior military, staffs, television reporters, and special guests. By my count, over 700. Without question, we have room for 200 or more.

The thought of chamber capacity limiting Membership is an utterly ridiculous and hysterical excuse in the 21st century, least of all because the room is almost always empty when you turn on CSPAN. Only voting on bills and public debate fall onto the chamber floor with any attendance at all, and both of those activities could be handled remotely online. The real work happens in committees and those could realistically convene anywhere in the nation. With today’s innovations, Representatives no longer need to commute to a single faraway land to get things done together. If anything, it’s more advantageous for Representatives to stop commuting altogether to spend more time in their districts with their constituents rather than losing touch in cramped and corruptible offices in Washington, D.C.

How will we pay for it?

Adding more Representatives means adding more salaries which means less pay for Members and fewer staff or more taxes for Americans. No incumbent Member of Congress will realistically jump at the chance to vote for that.

But it’s far from as bad as you think. Let’s do some math, shall we?

Representatives currently earn a salary of $174,000 and receive a Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA) of $944,671 to employ a maximum of 18 permanent employees. These budgets come from an overall appropriations account of $562.6 million (FY2017). If we applied the cube root law to increase our Membership by 240 to 675 total seats per the last census, Representatives would need to take a $62,000 pay cut and drop 2 to 6 employees each OR pass an appropriations bill to increase funding by $310.4 million to cover new salaries plus expenses, insurance, offices, supplies, and travel. A reduced salary of $112,000 would still be 2.5 times more than the median salary in America and the appropriations increase less than 0.0075% of the 2017 Federal Budget. Assuming Members won’t voluntarily take a pay and staff cut, Americans could experience a total renaissance in democracy for less than an additional $1 per person per year.

The poetic cost per person to restore American Democracy

We are all well within our means to afford a dramatic increase in our representation in this country. All we need to do is convince Congress we want it or force them to do it ourselves.

3 Strategies to Increase House Size

Alas, I am not the first person to point out most of the issues raised in this blog series so far nor am I the first to propose the following solutions. Indeed, many articles and papers I reviewed in research including The New York Times, Washburn Law Journal, Polity, the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, Perspectives on Politics, thirty-thousand.org, and Daily Kos take up this issue and highlight many conventional attempts that have been made to increase House size. We have a number of constitutional recourses available to us to win more representation if we want it bad enough. But are they effective enough to ensure that this can happen?

1. Call Your Representative

By all means, we should try to convince our Representatives that revisiting House size dramatically benefits the American people and helps make their own jobs considerably easier by lightening their burden. However, remember that we each only have 10–15 seconds to make our case. If you try to call or email your Representative, you’ll be lucky to speak with a staffer and can only hope that your points make it through. If by some miracle your Representative were to read this blog series, it would take R.A.T. time otherwise spent addressing the needs of 250 individuals. That’s the point.

A few noble Representatives have challenged the Permanent Reapportion Act with amendments or outright omission, if only to gain a few seats. After Alaska and Hawaii became states, the 1961 reapportionment process temporarily increased House size by two and hearings were held to debate whether the increase should be permanent. Alas, the debate failed. A similar debate continues to surface around finally granting Washington, D.C. a full-voting House member. We’ll see. As for any effort for more than one or two seats? I’m not aware of any ever sponsored by a Member of Congress. All attempts by Members have had next to no traction and ultimately failed.

2. Take It To Court

When in doubt, sue and appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Montana sued the Department of Commerce in 1992 after it lost one of its two seats following the 1990 Census. On grounds that the Court should apply the “one person, one vote” principle from fair intrastate districting across state lines, Montana argued for a new reapportionment strategy that could result in different state districts all being closer in size. While the lower courts favored Montana, a unanimous Supreme Court overturned the district court’s decision and ruled that Congress is within its authority to use the formula it applied to calculate how many seats each state would get.

We could challenge the constitutionality of the House cap by filing a lawsuit claiming that it butts heads with Article I, Section 2 and Amendment XIV, Section 2 of the Constitution stating that “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers”…wait, oh, Clemons v. Department of Commerce already tried to do that in 2009. A group of voters argued that the only remedy for violating “one person, one vote” was to lift the Member limit, but a Federal District Court rejected the argument in the summer of 2010 with an added point that disparities in district size always existed. The plaintiffs appealed, but the Supreme Court decided not to review the case without explanation.

While defenses in both cases contended that the 435-member limit is a political question and should defer to Congress for debate, the Court’s first response and subsequent lack of response leaves the judicial door open for future lawsuits. There’s still hope here if anyone can afford the lawyers.

(Mark Fischer)

3. Empower State Legislatures

If Congress won’t do anything and the Supreme Court won’t do anything either, our final constitutional recourse lives in Article V of the Constitution:

…on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which…shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress;

The Framers of the Constitution designed an Amendment process where two-thirds of state legislatures could call a special convention to bypass Congress altogether and propose Amendments themselves. To date, we have never used the convention process. Many states have, however, applied en masse enough to coerce Congress to propose the Amendment themselves. After 21 states applied for an amendment establishing the direction election of Senators in 1912, Congress beat them to the punch before a convention was called by proposing and passing the 17th Amendment. Some states are trying to use this mechanism to mandate a balanced federal budget, limit income tax, and win the right to apportion state legislature districts by their own methods. Only the effort to impose a balanced budget comes close to convention with 27 applications — only seven states shy.

If we could convince states to rally around language for an Amendment to the Constitution on the topic of Congressional apportionment and apply for it accordingly, we would strong-arm Congress to repeal Permanent Reapportionment, increase the number of seats, or propose an Amendment on their own. If they refuse, it would take the applications of 34 state legislatures to call a convention and do it ourselves.

Shall we try to make a little history?


Do these recourses feel out of reach? Fear not, for there is still a lot of hope.

In the next post, we’ll walk through a pretty disruptive solution to get us one step closer to achieving our goal of maximizing representative democracy.

This is Part 4 of a six-part series on our representation in the United States.

Next: Part 5: The Future of Representative Democracy