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Expanding Congress

September 17, 2009 - by Paul Blumenthal

For nearly 100 years the House of Representatives has remained the same size. 435 lawamakers. There have been two expansions of staff for lawmakers, in 1946 and 1970, but no expansion of lawmakers for citizens. That may change as a federal lawsuit has been filed charging that the current seat apportionment system disenfranchises smaller states.

Quoted in the New York Times, the leader of the court challenge Scott Scharpen says, "As an American looking at it objectively, how can we continue with a system where certain voters’ voting power is substantially smaller than others’?”

This is a pretty interesting question and could get to the problem that most Americans have with Congress. Just from casual conversations I’ve had I gather that most people have a pretty low opinion of Congress. These conversations have been supported by many polls showing sky-high disapproval ratings for the People’s House. Perhaps, the problem people have with Congress is that congressmen represent far too many people.

Peter Baker in the New York Times explains:

The issue traces back to the founding of the country. The Constitution stipulated that every 10 years, the House should be reapportioned so that each state had at lease one representative and that no Congressional district contained fewer than 30,000 people. But it was left to Congress to decide how many total House seats there should be.

The original House had 65 representatives, one for every 33,000 people. As the country’s population grew over the next century, so did the size of the House, until it reached 435 in 1911, when each member at that time representing an average of 212,000 people.

But Congress refused to reapportion after the 1920 Census, as a wave of immigration threatened to shift voting power from the South and Midwest to the urban Northeast. Eventually, Congress voted to keep the House at 435 seats regardless of rising population. Except for a brief period when it enlarged to 437 because Alaska and Hawaii had joined the union with one seat each, the House has remained at 435 ever since.

Today, congressmen represent 700,000 people, on average. It’s no wonder that people feel like their congressman is out of touch. To the congressman, there’s just too many of you.

As the population keeps expanding this problem will only grow. It will be very interesting to see how this lawsuit plays out.

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