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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Freezing the Number of U.S. House Reps at 435 Since 1929 Screws Democrats

You don’t have to look far to find articles about the pros and cons of adding states to the U.S., such as proposals for statehood for Washington, D.C.  Ditto for increasing the size of the U.S. Supreme Court. More rare, however, are thoughtful discussions about increasing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives.

But Dennis Negron has done exactly that in his article, “The Different Ways of Expanding the House: The number of House representatives has remained largely static for almost a century” at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. As Negron explains:

With the 2020 census results out, we now know where the balance of power will be once the 118th Congress assembles in January 2023. Southern and western states generally gain power at the expense of Rust Belt and northeastern states. Because the House is arbitrarily capped at 435 members, it means that every time the census is taken, there’s a game of musical chairs that determines which states gain more representation in Congress and which lose, depending on how their populations grew relative to the nation in the previous decade. Texas, for example, has seen explosive growth and has been the top seat gainer since 2000, earning two seats in 2000, four seats in 2010, and two seats in 2020. But that growth has been at the expense of states like New York, which in the same Census years lost two seats in both 2000 and 2010, and one seat in 2020.

This means that states end up with more residents per representative than other states. Using the 2020 census results, Montana’s two House members will each represent about 543,000 people apiece; on the other side of the spectrum, Delaware’s single member will represent all 991,000 people. So how can the House truly represent the state populations?

First, it’s important to bear in mind that current House membership stands at 435 because of a law passed in 1929 (the Reapportionment Act of 1929), which caps the number at 435. There is no constitutional provision that dictates the maximum number of representatives that the House can hold. The other thing to remember is that states are meant to be equally represented in the Senate with each one sending two senators; in the House, however, the argument was to have the chamber represent the population in general. As states were admitted, new seats were gradually added to account for the population growth. The last time seats were added were for Alaska and Hawaii when they attained statehood and each had a single seat, increasing the House to 437. However, the House reverted to 435 after the 1960 census and has remained static ever since.

What is so good about fixing the number of House members at 435? Arguments that it facilitates political stability fall flat, when considering the founders’ intentions. They clearly meant for the number to increase as the population grew.

The way it is now, Democrats get screwed by “musical chairs” gerrymandering, not just in the House, but also in the Electoral College which reflects the 435 limit. Of course, Republicans like it a lot, since it feeds their ability to dominate

It wouldn’t be easy to change the number. As Negron notes, “The obvious solution is the simplest one, though in today’s polarized environment, it may not fly so well because it will require the Senate to pass it too: increase the size of the House by repealing the 1929 law and passing a different one that either sets a higher number or lets the total float.” But, as soon as Democrats win a real working majority — say 53 or more U.S. Senate seats — they should seriously consider such a reform.

Negron discusses other possible measures to rectify the 435 rip-off, some of them interesting, but likely more difficult than the repeal and replace reform noted above. Yes, correcting the injustice of the 435 limitation would serve Democrats in the short run. Over the longer range, however, it might serve Republicans as well. But it would certainly serve the cause of fairness, as well as representative democracy.

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