A big­ger House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives?

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

It seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive. At a time of sag­ging ap­proval rat­ings for Congress, the Supreme Court is be­ing asked to rule that the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives is too small. It’s for Congress, not the courts, to de­cide how many mem­bers the House should have, but there are some ap­peal­ing ar­gu­ments for the idea of a larger cham­ber.

A fed­eral court in Mis­sis­sippi re­cently re­jected a claim by vot­ers in five states that the cur­rent al­lot­ment of 435 rep­re­sen­ta­tives vi­o­lates the Con­sti­tu­tion’s re­quire­ment that states be rep­re­sented in the House “ac­cord­ing to their re­spec­tive num­bers.” That de­ci­sion is be­ing ap­pealed to the high court.

The plain­tiffs’ ar­gu­ment is that some states have more rep­re­sen­ta­tion than oth­ers be­cause of vari­a­tions in the pop­u­la­tions of con­gres­sional dis­tricts. For ex­am­ple, Wy­oming has a sin­gle district with a pop­u­la­tion of 495,304, while Mon­tana’s one district com­prises 905,316. It isn’t just sin­gledis­trict states that are over-or un­der­rep­re­sented. West Vir­ginia’s three dis­tricts av­er­age 604,359, while the av­er­age for Mis­sis­sippi’s four dis­tricts is 713,232.

Dis­par­i­ties re­sult partly from the fact that ev­ery state is en­ti­tled to at least one rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and that some states fall short of the pop­u­la­tion thresh­old for an ad­di­tional seat. But the plain­tiffs ar­gued that dis­pro­por­tions would de­crease as the size of the House in­creased. Rul­ing that “math­e­mat­ics do not con­trol,” the three-judge panel in Mis­sis­sippi cor­rectly held that the plain­tiffs “seek ju­di­cial en­try into the ex­act area of de­ci­sion-mak­ing that was re­served for Congress.”

But that raises the ques­tion of whether Congress should in­crease the size of the House, not only to min­i­mize dis­par­i­ties but to take at least some ac­count of the pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion that has oc­curred since 1911. That was the year Congress pro­vided for 435 seats once Ari­zona and New Mex­ico were ad­mit­ted to the Union. (The num­ber rose tem­po­rar­ily to 437 in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii be­came states.) The num­ber 435 isn’t writ­ten in stone, let alone in the Con­sti­tu­tion. What are the ar­gu­ments for in­creas­ing it — say to 650, the size of the Bri­tish House of Com­mons?

In ad­di­tion to re­duc­ing dis­par­i­ties, a larger House could make rep­re­sen­ta­tives more re­spon­sive be­cause their con­stituen­cies would be smaller. Cam­paigns would be less costly be­cause fewer vot­ers would have to be can­vassed. And par­ties and points of view that are peren­ni­ally locked out of of­fice by the size of cur­rent dis­tricts would see their prospects im­prove.

We’re un­der no il­lu­sion that ex­pand­ing the size of the House would be po­lit­i­cally easy. For many vot­ers — and thus for many mem­bers of Congress — “big govern­ment” is anath­ema. More rep­re­sen­ta­tives, even if they were paid less, would be por­trayed as a raid on the Trea­sury.

But it’s time to de­bate whether, when it comes to rep­re­sen­ta­tion, big­ger is bet­ter.

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