Dysfunction in the House has been a major political theme of 2023, with the ouster of former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and constant infighting among Republicans. But the problems go beyond the power of a faction of the GOP to distort the workings of the chamber. What is known as the people’s House is seen by the public as more and more distant from the people.
For the first 125 years after the Constitution was ratified, the size of the House grew steadily, from an initial membership of 59 to 435 in 1913. Then it stopped growing, eventually restricted by a 1929 law to the current 435 members, even though the country’s population continued to grow. House members in the first Congress each represented roughly 35,000 people. Today the average member of the House represents about 768,000 people.
In 2020, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a lengthy report called “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” The first of its recommendations called for substantially enlarging the House, noting that among the world’s democracies, the United States is an outlier in the size of its lower chamber.
The American Academy report proposed adding 150 members to the House, roughly the number of seats that have shifted from state to state due to reapportionment since 1931. That would reduce the number of people per district to about 566,000.
That’s just one of several ideas that would expand the House. However it’s accomplished, proponents say expansion would create a body that’s more responsive and more representative of the public it serves.
There are practical and political considerations involved in expanding the House. The law that limits the House to 435 members would have to be repealed. There is also the issue of space: The current House chamber likely could not accommodate a significantly larger body without substantial renovation, not to mention committee hearing rooms and office suites. But there is nothing sacrosanct about a 435-member House.