This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Should the Population of the US House of Representatives Increase?

The framers of the US Constitution designed the US House of Representatives to grow with the population, stipulating only that no congressional district should have fewer than 30,000 constituents. And the House did increase in size throughout the 19th century, in tandem with the growth of the American population. The original House of Representatives included 65 members and after the 1910 census it increased to 433, with two more being added shortly after that in 1912 when Arizona and New Mexico were added as states. It has stayed at 435 since then, without even additions in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states. What happened? Shouldn't Congress have kept growing right along with the population? Dalton Conley (a professor at NYU) and Jacqueline Stevens (a professor at Northwestern) think it should and have said so in an Op-Ed in today's New York Times. They argue that growth in Congress stopped because:

...the 1920 census indicated that the majority of Americans were concentrating in cities, and nativists, worried about of the power of “foreigners,” blocked efforts to give them more representatives. By the time the next decade rolled around, members found themselves reluctant to dilute their votes, and the issue was never seriously considered again. The result is that Americans today are numerically the worst-represented group of citizens in the country’s history. The average House member speaks for about 700,000 Americans. In contrast, in 1913 he represented roughly 200,000, a ratio that today would mean a House with 1,500 members — or 5,000 if we match the ratio the founders awarded themselves.
They offer a variety of reasons why this might be a good thing, focusing especially on the fact that having fewer constituents puts members of Congress into closer touch with constituents and would make it cheaper to run a campaign, thus dampening the influence of outside money. But they also note that it is highly improbable that Congress will itself decide to dilute the influence of individual members and so, if people believe that this is a good thing, it will have to be forced upon members of Congress.
So if such reform is to happen, it will have to be driven by grassroots movements. Luckily, we are living in just such a moment: the one thing Move On and the Tea Party can agree on is that the Washington status quo needs to change. So far this year, that has meant shrinking government. But in this case, the best solution might just be to make government — or at least the House of Representatives — bigger.

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