The size of the U.S. House of Representatives doesn't get the attention that it deserves when Americans think about the problems our political system faces, but it's been frozen at 435 members for over a century even though the nation's population has since grown nearly fourfold. One congressman, however, believes it's an important reason why the federal government doesn't represent its citizens as well as it should, and he has a plan to fix it.
Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer is a Democrat who has represented the Portland area in the House since 1996, with a particular focus on political reforms, climate issues, and transportation policy. He recently introduced a bill that would enlarge the House from its current 435 members to 585 members after the next census in 2030. We previously detailed how the bill would work after it was introduced, and we recently spoke with the congressman to ask him why he thinks the size of the House must increase, what he hopes to accomplish with his bill, and what it might take for such legislation to pass.
A lightly edited version of our conversation is presented below. Blumenauer explains that a larger House could improve the quality of representation and increase constituents' access to their elected officials by reducing the number each member serves. He also notes that it could increase the diversity of interests represented in Congress, make it easier for newcomers to get elected, reduce the cost of campaigning for individual candidates, and yield other benefits as well.
Stephen Wolf: So first off, in your bill to expand the size of the House, you would increase it to 585 members, which is an increase of 150 members or roughly a third of the current number. You had an interesting way of getting to that figure. Can you explain that to us and why you settled on that number?
Rep. Earl Blumenauer: The size of the House of Representatives has not been adjusted in total for over 100 years. What we did was establish the number of seats that shifted in the course of that 100 years. Those are the  seats that moved between states [in the decennial reapportionment process following each census] since the 435 cap was enacted. Plus, we added one more seat to maintain an odd number of people voting in the House.
It has the benefit of being able to make the House a more manageable number of people. It's going to be easier for people like me to represent the constituents. Right now I have 800,000 people that I represent, and if we don't do something different, it's going to be 1 million people by mid-century—that is very difficult to be able to appropriately represent the broad range of interests in the community. It's hard to keep track. It's harder for people who are not incumbents to get elected. Making the constituency smaller and more personal is better representation, and it's easier for new people to be elected.
[Note: While Bluemenauer's bill wouldn't take effect until after 2030, if the House were expanded now the average number of constituents per district would fall by roughly a quarter, from about 760,000 to around 570,000.]
Wolf: Your bill also has a provision for increasing the size of the House in the future to keep up with population growth, sort of like indexing the minimum wage to inflation. Could you tell us how that works?
Blumenauer: Yeah, well we just don't want to get in the situation where we lose ground, and by having the mechanism in there over time to make the adjustments on a decade-by-decade basis, we think keeps it manageable and avoids significant shifts in the future.
[Note: Each decade, the bill would add up to 10 more seats to the House to help ensure that states would not lose seats in reapportionment.]
Also, it gives us an opportunity to make changes for the physical location of Congress in the capital. We are inhabiting right now offices that were basically set, with the Cannon building in the House, it was 1905; Longworth, 1937; and then the Rayburn building was 1962. We need to be able to update and modernize the facilities, and the ones we have now aren't particularly functional.
Wolf: You discussed some of these potential benefits of expanding the House, and I was wondering if you could elaborate a little further on that, particularly about how a larger House size and the smaller districts make it easier for members to provide constituent services.
Blumenauer: Well, one of the most important things that members of Congress do—and is not appreciated—is dealing with the myriad connections to the federal government: dealing with lost Social Security, veterans' benefits, and people who want to be able to explore legislative initiatives on everything from agriculture to animal welfare. The diversity of issues that people bring to us is really overwhelming, but that's an important part of being a representative. By making the constituency more manageable, it cuts down on sort of the day-to-day, more routine functions that nonetheless take a great deal of time. And people depend on it to be able to get that veteran's benefit, to be able to negotiate an agricultural program.
So it makes it a more manageable process for members of Congress and, even more importantly, for the staff members. Then, when we go back from Washington, D.C., it's a smaller range of people we have to visit with. We're able to concentrate and do that more effectively. Eight-hundred-thousand people in a metropolitan area is a daunting task, and by being able to scale that down, it makes it easier to meet their needs. There are fewer people knocking on the door seeking services.
Wolf: What concerns do you have about any possible downsides of expansion?
Blumenauer: I don't think, if we do it right and if we're patient, that there are going to be downsides. I think it's all positive: being able to have manageable districts, being able to modernize facilities, being able to make sure that it's easier for people to get access to the members of Congress, and to make campaigns less expensive and difficult. Having large districts is in essence an incumbent protection program. It's harder to dislodge somebody who's got that head start. By reducing the size of the constituency, there are fewer voters to contact and we’re able to concentrate on meeting their needs.
I am not worried at all. The other thing that it will do is it's going to broaden the representation in the House by expanding the size of the House of Representatives. Keying in on the electoral votes, it makes that more representative and that  extra votes will reflect the changes in population.
[Note: Increasing the size of the House would also make the Electoral College somewhat more proportionate. Currently, California has 69 times the population of Wyoming but only 18 times its electoral votes. Were Blumenauer's bill in place today, California would have 24 times as many electoral votes as Wyoming.]
Wolf: What have the reactions to your bill from your colleagues been looking like so far?
Blumenauer: People are intrigued. I have not encountered anybody who says we shouldn't do this or that it's too complicated. People haven't normally thought about it.
The really terrific program, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has done a lot of the spade work in making this part of their framework for greater accountability. They've got a series of recommendations to make government work better by the time we celebrate our 250th anniversary [in 2026], and this is one that I think they've done a good job of analyzing. And as I said, people, when they think about it, understand that this is a very constructive, reasonable approach, and that it is past time to deal with transforming Congress to be more representative.
Wolf: So on that note, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to passing legislation like this?
Blumenauer: I think the key is, first of all, just getting people's attention and focusing on it. When you consider what's going to be necessary to just physically accommodate  more people, that's going to get some people's attention.
People have never really thought about the fact that we have frozen the size of the House of Representatives since . The challenge has been getting people to pay attention to an alternative that could be better, to think about how it would be easier to represent the people in your state if you have a more manageable number to help keep down the costs and complications of elections, and to make it easier to make sure that everybody is heard.
This is not solving all our problems, but it's an important step towards making manageable the very difficult task of representing hundreds of thousands of people.
Wolf: Lastly, what can people who are interested in supporting this bill and seeing it passed do to help make that happen?
Blumenauer: First and foremost is to engage in this conversation around the country. I would love it if people would convene local conversations to talk about equity with congressional redistricting and how to improve representation to deal with the consequences of sprawling, huge districts. I think the more the public is involved, the more they realize that they stand to benefit the most. Being able to campaign in a way that is less expensive, that is easier to be connected to our constituents, and easier for constituents to be connected to members of Congress and the men and women who work with them. It reduces the workload, and that's very important in terms of being able to meet the needs of the public by making it more manageable.
Wolf: That's all the questions we had today for you congressman, but thank you so much for sitting down with us and giving us your time.
Blumenauer: Happy to do it. And I think what is most helpful is just to be able to establish the difference that it makes between having frozen the size of the House of Representatives—you know, [districts were] just a couple hundred thousand people in —and the fact that if we don't get off this pattern, it'll be 1 million people, and you just think about how difficult it is to communicate with 1 million people, how difficult it is to campaign. Now is the time to make this change in a way that can be done in a thoughtful and orderly fashion and not wait until it gets to the breaking point.