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Enlarging the House won’t fix US politics

Should the House of Representatives be larger? A new paper by Lee Drutman, Jonathan D Cohen, Yuval Levin and Norman J Ornstein makes the case for a fairly modest increase of 150 seats, from the current 435. But 150? Or to put it another way: The pluses and minuses of expanding the House are pretty clear, but it’s a lot harder to figure out how to weigh them.
The current arrangement of 435 seats is a historical oddity; the size of the House isn’t set in the Constitution, and the chamber grew gradually over the years until it happened to get stuck at 435 about a hundred years ago. That size eventually wound up as a norm that no one wanted to break, which meant that as the US population grew, so did the size of individual House districts. Now they’re very large indeed — and the House is very small, relative to population, by world standards.
For some, the case for enlarging the chamber is straightforward. As districts get larger, voters will tend to feel less connected to their representatives. I’m skeptical of this point. For one thing, I suspect many — perhaps most — Americans feel closer to the president, at least when it’s a president they like, than they do to their representative, and a good number feel more attached to their senators. But what’s more convincing to me is that, like or not, once the US became a very large country, any hope of a personal relationship between national representatives and most of their constituents was lost.
On the plus side, enlarging the House would help reduce the malapportionment of the Electoral College, which is, after all, based on the House plus the Senate. The Senate is designed to reward small states over large ones — and, as it has evolved, it has also come to favour rural states over more urban (or suburban) ones. A larger House, apportioned fairly, would tend to counter these distortions. The authors also argue that a larger House could offer more descriptive representation for various ethnic and other groups. And they make the reasonable point that a larger House would create more opportunities for citizens to enter politics.
But the downside outweighs all of those advantages. The larger the chamber, the more likely it is to be centrally governed. As it is, the House has become far more centralised than it was even 25 years ago — too much so, in the view of most experts. The committee system is much weaker than it was, which means that individual representatives have far less capacity to act meaningfully.
In other nations, with strong parties and parliamentary systems, centralisation in the legislature isn’t a problem; in fact, that’s more or less the way things normally work. But Congress has always been a transformative legislature. It doesn’t merely debate and vote on bills submitted by the government. It develops, amends and bargains over legislation with only partial participation from the president. At their best, with a balance between centralisation (in the form of party leadership) and decentralisation (in the form of standing committees and subcommittees), both House and Senate can harness the strengths of many, or even all, their members. There’s nothing magic about 435 in the House, nothing to suggest that it’s the configuration that comes closest to allowing that balance. But if the current chamber leans too far toward centralisation, it’s hard to believe that more rank-and-file members would help. So again: A very large House, with hundreds of new members (or even thousands, as some have proposed), seems like a very bad idea to me, one that would destroy the chamber’s biggest strengths.


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