How The House Got Stuck At 435 Seats

“There have been 435 seats in the House for so long now that it might seem as if the Founding Fathers had foreseen it as a natural ceiling for the chamber’s size. But that isn’t the case: 435 is entirely arbitrary. The House arrived at that number because of political expediency — and it has stayed there because of it, too.

Up until 1910, when the chamber expanded from 391 to 435 seats,4 the size of the House had experienced a mostly unchecked pattern of growth. Only once, after the 1840 census, did the number of seats in the House not increase; 1910, however, marked the last time the House grew, even though the U.S. population has more than tripled since then, from over 90 million in 1910 to over 330 million today.”

“In 1910, the largest state, New York, had about 9 million more people than the smallest — that is, least populous — state, Nevada. But today, the largest state, California, has nearly 39 million more people than the smallest, Wyoming. 

This staggering gap makes it far more likely for states to end up with wildly unequal district populations thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that each state have at least one congressional district. The Supreme Court requires districts to have equal populations, but this applies only to the districts within a state — not between states. So even though the average House district will have just over 760,000 people after this round of reapportionment, each state’s average district will vary quite a bit, especially as states get smaller in size.

 Take the smallest and largest states with only one representative: Wyoming and Delaware, respectively. Wyoming, with just under 578,000 people, winds up overrepresented because it’s guaranteed a seat despite falling well short of that 760,000 national average. Conversely, Delaware has nearly 991,000 people, which leaves it underrepresented because it isn’t quite large enough to earn a second seat. Meanwhile, Montana has only about 95,000 more people than Delaware, but that’s enough for the apportionment formula to eke out a second seat, meaning Montana will have two districts to Delaware’s one and an average district size of just over 542,000, making its constituents the most represented in the country.

State lines make perfectly equal districts across the country impossible, but there’s no question that increasing the size of the House would help reduce how unequal district sizes among states have become. Expanding the House could also make districts smaller, which in turn could help with representation, as the average number of people living in a congressional district has grown by about 520,000 people from 1920 to 2020 — three times more than the total shift from 1790 to 1910.”  

“each member of the House represents far more people on average than legislators in most other large, developed — or developing — democracies.”

“Regardless of the potential benefits of a bigger House, though, there would likely be steep opposition to expanding it because of some of the tradeoffs — and potential downsides — involved. For instance, a larger House would by necessity mean a bigger government and more spending. House members make $174,000 per year, and after five years of service they are also eligible for a pension. Combine that with new staff, new construction for office space, perhaps even a roomier House chamber and you’re talking about many millions or even billions of dollars

There could also be consequences for governing, too, such as more gridlock and partisanship. “By increasing the number of players who have to be satisfied in the legislative game, you make arriving at the kind of majorities — or, in most cases, supermajorities — that you need to pass legislation more difficult,””

“a bigger House might produce fewer competitive seats thanks to partisan sorting and fewer representatives open to compromise. “You would have even less of an incentive as an individual member of Congress to try to do things on a bipartisan basis,” said Overby, “because your district would be increasingly homogeneous — increasingly Democratic or increasingly Republican.””

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