The failure of gun control legislation this past week has brought renewed attention to the undemocratic design of the Senate, a glaring fact that grabs our attention during such votes when small, rural states assert power against the majority of the population (and, in this case, the majority of the Senate). California has roughly 19 million people per Senator; Wyoming, roughly 288,000. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose all have more people than Wyoming—and many other states as well.
However, we pay less attention to the design of the House, other than when we talk about gerrymandering, which we saw prominently after the recent elections (especially in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin).
Let's start with a question: Why are there 435 seats in the House of Representatives?
That number does not appear in the Constitution:
The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one RepresentativeIt appears in no amendment. We actually don’t see it in action until the 1912 election, before which the results of the 1910 census had led to the increase in the total House seats from 394 to 435.
After each decennial census, Congress had the constitutional obligation to pass a reapportionment bill. After the 1920 census, then, Congress should have passed a bill to replace the Apportionment Act of 1911 in accordance with the increase in population over the past decade. The political landscape, however, made that not quite so easy a task.
If Congress had followed the dominant apportionment method at the time (the Webster method), the number of seats in the House would have risen to 483 in order to comply with a long-standing norm that no state lose a seat upon reapportionment.
The reason for the delay lay in the urban-rural divide that we still see today. A mix of forces including World War I, rapid industrialization, and the mechanization of agriculture had accelerated the migration from rural states to urban states. The continuing immigration of population from Southern and Eastern Europe also fueled the urbanization of the country: more immigrants had come to the country in the prior decade than any other decade except the 1900s. Between 1910 and 1920, the urban population had swollen by 19 million and the rural population had fallen by 4 million.
The rural states, which (as we know) had disproportionate power in the Senate, had no intention of giving up their power any earlier than necessary, and they kept postponing the inevitable reapportionment, crushing bill after bill. Rep. Emmanuel Celler of New York expressed his frustration thus:
“The issue and the struggle underlying reapportionment is between the large States with large cities on the one side and the rural and agricultural States on the other side. That thread of controversy runs through all the political struggles evidenced in this House. That thread runs through immigration, prohibition, income tax, tariff. It is the city versus the country. The issue grows more and more menacing.”This anxiety with the changing face of the country, as Rep. Celler noted, also led to legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1924, which established quotas based on the 1890 census.
Eventually, nine years after the Census, Congress passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which established a permanent method for allocating 435 seats. After the 1940 Census, this 435 cap was institutionalized, and the apportionment process was made automatic to avoid the congressional battles that had dominated the 1920s.
We have since held on to this 435 cap, with temporary exceptions for the addition of Alaska and Hawaii.
The total U.S. population after the 1910 census, when the 435 seat apportionment first appeared, was 92,407,000. That equates to one representative per 212,430 people. The population has more than tripled since then, so we now have one representative per 709,760 people.
The UK Parliament, for contrast, has 650 members for a population of about 63 million, significantly more representative than ours.
Keeping the same population per representative would yield a House of roughly 1453 members. With the current House as dysfunctional as it is, I doubt such a size would work out; however, the current size fails to meet the needs of a population that has grown greatly in the past century.