A Full House

The drawbacks of expanding the House of Representatives largely outweigh the benefits

As the 2010 Census approaches, state governments will be looking to redraw congressional district lines to reflect the recent populations of the past 10 years. But even adjusting for these population shifts, the size of each congressional district will still be highly variable, with both Montana’s population of 958,000 people and Wyoming’s 523,000 people each represented by one member in the House. A federal court challenge set to be filed in Mississippi on Thursday alleges that the 400,000-person disparity disenfranchises people living in certain states. They call for the House to increase its size to anywhere from 932 to 1,761 members in order to create districts that are of roughly equal population size.

Looking at these numbers, it does seem unjust that the House of Representatives, a body founded on the principle of proportional representation, should give some citizens so much more voting power than others—a person’s vote in Montana counts for a little more than half that of a voter in Wyoming.

However, the proposal to dramatically expand the size of the House would ultimately generate more problems than it would fix. At its current size of 435 members, the House is already slow and inefficient, and doubling its size would only exacerbate these problems. Increasing the size of the House to 1,000 members would make the already protracted process of lawmaking even longer.

Furthermore, a larger number of representatives with smaller constituencies and narrower interests would increase the potential for pork-barrel spending and inefficiency. Members of the House, in order to curry favor with their constituencies, generally try to direct federal funding toward their own districts through earmarks in legislation. It follows that having more representatives would likely result in increased spending on numerous projects that are not of national significance. Whatever gains in equity are achieved by expansion would be overwhelmed by losses in effectiveness.

Finally, it is worth noting that, to find the most striking source of unequal representation, one would need look no further than the Senate, which grants tremendously disproportionate voting power to inhabitants of small states. While this system is highly unlikely to change, given that it would require a constitutional amendment to do so, we would contend that the inequality it generates is far more pronounced and troubling than that of inconsistent House congressional districts.

Concern over disproportionate representation is warranted and well received. Drastically expanding the House, however, is not the appropriate solution.


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