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The Politics of Numbers: Why 435 Does Not Add Up

Fresh off a narrow victory in his 1928 reelection campaign, Congressman Ralph Lozier should have been in good spirits. However, the Missouri native was seething in his seat on the House floor. The chamber had been debating a reapportionment bill that would permanently fix the number of seats in the House of Representatives at 435, and the congressman was having a difficult time following his colleagues’ logic. He could not wrap his head around it: Why was everyone so insistent on the number 435? Unwilling to suffer in silence any longer, he aired his grievances, arguing that “there is no sanctity in the number 435 … there is absolutely no reason, philosophy, or common sense in arbitrarily fixing the membership of the House at 435…” Lozier’s diatribe failed to convince his peers, and the act was passed the next year.

Lozier and his colleagues were not the first to consider the proper size of the House of Representatives. In fact, it is a debate that precedes Congress itself. In the obscure Federalist 55, James Madison admitted that “no political problem is less susceptible of a precise solution than that which relates to the number most convenient for a representative legislature.” Nonetheless, Madison attempted to formulate an answer only a year later. The original Bill of Rights submitted to the states for ratification had an amendment that would require a representative for every 50,000 people. The measure was ultimately defeated by a one-state margin; had it passed, the House would now have over 6,000 members.

Today, the average representative serves as a stand-in for over 700,000 people, a ratio 14 times higher than the Founding Fathers once envisioned. Furthermore, the House of Representatives’ 435 members now represent 330 million Americans, almost three times as many as they did when the cap was set in 1929. With over 60 percent of citizens advocating for a significant change in the “fundamental design and structure of American government,” reform should begin with the House of Representatives. Although Madison’s suggestion is now unfeasible, continuing with the Reapportionment Act of 1929 is equally untenable: Congress needs to unshackle itself from 435 and increase its membership in order to adequately represent its constituents.

A larger House of Representatives boasts several advantages. Most obviously, a decrease in district size correlates with heightened responsiveness; providing useful constituency services to more than 700,000 people is a herculean task that borders on the impossible. In the same vein, accurately gauging public opinion becomes less challenging with smaller districts. The difficulty and high cost of mounting a competitive campaign is also a product of large districts. A smaller electorate cuts fundraising costs for candidates, encouraging more people to run and thus granting voters a wider array of options. Not only does this weaken the incumbency advantage, but it also theoretically produces representatives who better represent their district’s unique beliefs. Consequently, smaller districts could provide ideological diversity to a polarized Congress. An increase in representation could even have the potential to help ameliorate gerrymandering. Elections Analyst Sean Trende has observed that gerrymandering becomes progressively more difficult as the number of districts increase. By forcing state legislatures to draw more lines, partitioning states for political gain necessarily becomes more challenging as key constituencies have to be dispersed across more districts. Despite these potential improvements to American democracy, the House of Representatives has dodged reform for decades.

"Although Madison’s suggestion is now unfeasible, continuing with the Reapportionment Act of 1929 is equally untenable: Congress needs to unshackle itself from 435 and increase its membership in order to adequately represent its constituents"

Perhaps the largest obstacle to increasing the size of the House has been tradition. 435 has been sacrosanct for nearly 90 years, the only standard that the overwhelming majority of Americans have ever known. Thus, it is unsurprising that when polled about a potential increase, a majority of respondents thought the House should remain the same size. However, there was an appreciable difference when surveyees were given historical background: 34 percent of these interviewees subsequently supported an increase. After being shown evidence of the chamber’s antiquated design, respondents were much more willing to depart from the established norm. Supporting this standard for the sake of continuity becomes even less convincing when compared to other representative democracies.

The United States Congress is uniquely distinguished by its high representative-to-constituent ratio. Of the 36 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States holds the dubious honor of largest representation ratio. No other nation comes close: at a distant second is Japan, whose ratio is almost three times smaller. Despite the United States having the third highest population in the world, the House of Representatives is only the 19th largest lower house. The United Kingdom, Italy, and France all boast larger lower houses for populations five times smaller than the United States. Moreover, all three of these nations have modified the size of their parliaments to accommodate population changes in the past century.

However, Congress hardly needs to look beyond its own borders to find more representative legislatures. The New Hampshire House of Representatives is a 400 member body where each delegate represents about 3,400 constituents. In fact, the only thing that stopped the chamber from growing beyond that size was a dearth of physical space. Members claim that voters appreciate the heightened responsiveness, and the polls seemingly back up their claims: In August, citizens of the Granite State awarded their state legislators a net approval rating of 20 percent. Since proportionality similar to New Hampshire is logistically impossible on the national level, California may serve as a more realistic goal for Congress. The nation’s most populous state claims the largest ratio between citizens and assemblymen at 420,000 to one. Although this is twice as big as any other state, it is also significantly smaller than that of the United States House of Representatives. If Congress were to adopt the Wyoming Rule, a comparable level of representation could be achieved.

The Wyoming Rule is an allocation proposal that would supercede the Reapportionment Act of 1929. The plan would create one representative for however many people live in the union’s most sparsely populated state. Since Wyoming is currently the least populous, a representative would be appointed for every 570,000 people, resulting in a House with 545 members. However, 545 would not become the new 435: the process would be repeated after each census cycle and adjusted accordingly. Beyond increasing the size of the House by 25 percent, the unique advantage of the Wyoming Plan over other proposals is that it also curbs malapportionment. The constitutional mandate that each state have at least one member in the House of Representatives makes the votes of citizens in small states more powerful at the expense of the most populous states. While the Wyoming Rule does not completely remedy that problem, it closes the gap by recognizing the discrepancy and constructing the House around it.

Today, the words of Congressman Lozier remain relevant: Why is 435 sacred? While almost a century of devotion to the number has not dealt the House of Representatives any sort of irreparable harm, there seems to be no underlying logic in the 71st Congress’ fateful decision. With the politics of numbers squarely against 435, Congress only stands to benefit from making it a relic of the past.

Photo: “Capitol Building”

About the Author

Luke Angelillo '21 is a Staff Writer for the Economics Section of the Brown Political Review. Luke can be reached at luke_angelillo@brown.edu