Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why We Need a Larger Congress

With Congress' approval rating hovering at around 15%, Americans clearly think that the legislative branch is not pulling its weight. Or, even worse, that it's irrelevant. The House of Representatives is seemingly more interested in politicking than policy. It's also short staffed.

With the exception of gigantic India, members of Congress represent more people (about 700,000) than any other country. Members of Parliament in the UK look after about 75,000 people each. In Germany, it's about 131,000. It wasn't always this way.

The original gerrymander, Massachusetts
The original "Gerrymander"
In 1800, each Congressman had about 50,000 constituents. That number steadily grew along with the population, and Congress expanded the size of the House with the addition of new states. The Reapportionment Act of 1929 limited the number of seats to 435 (the number of members at the time from the then 48 states), and the system we have today was born. That year there were about 121 million Americans. Today, there are 317 million, and the number of people represented by a member of Congress has similarly ballooned - from 278,000 in 1929 to almost three quarters of a million in 2014.

But that doesn't even tell the real story. Because of how seats are currently allotted, Montana's lone congressional district has about 450,000 more people than the lone Member representing Wyoming next door. This disparity is even greater when comparing the most populous state (California) with the least populous (Wyoming). Because every state must have at least one representative, and because the membership of the House is capped at 435, California is underrepresented by about 13 seats (California has 66 times as many people as Wyoming, but only 53 times as many seats). The implications of this for the Electoral College are obvious.

The so-called "Wyoming Rule" would change this imbalance permanently. Under the Rule, each district is pegged to the size of the smallest district (currently the aforementioned Wyoming). As the smallest district grows, so would the average population in each district after the decennial census.

If we implemented the Wyoming Rule today, the House would have about 563 members (this isn't exact because each state still must have at least one representative, but it's roughly accurate). That would put us more broadly in line with other democracies, and would permanently correct the Electoral College imbalance. California would end up with about 66 seats, and Texas would net about 45. Wyoming, of course, would still have just 1.

And we'd hopefully all get better representation.

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