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Opinion

As US population increases, Congress must adjust

Today the average House district has a startling 650,000 people. How can one person fairly represent them all?

By Jane S. DeLung, Judith A. Himes / October 27, 2009



Princeton, N.J.

How would you feel if you knew that there was just one 911 operator in charge of answering and directing all the calls in your county? And that it had been this way for multiple decades, despite the fact that the population there has been steadily increasing over the years?

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No matter how capable the operator may be, unless more operators were added to take the calls, the effectiveness of the whole 911 system could be distorted. This is akin to what's happening with the US government and Congress.

The Constitution established the House of Representatives to be the "People's House" and the Senate, representing the states, to moderate the people's voice. Growth in the nation's population is resulting in ever larger Congressional districts that reduce minority voices, increase the power of the wealthy, and pose a problem for members of Congress to truly represent the people of their district.

The federal courts were recently asked by plaintiffs from five states (Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Delaware, and Utah) to rule that the size of the House be increased from its current 435 seats to reflect our nation's population growth. The US District Court has agreed to hear the case. The states argue that the disparity in the size of Congressional districts leaves many Americans without equal representation. Although the court may decline to intervene in the internal affairs of a coequal branch of government, the impact of national population growth on fair and effective representation merits a serious discussion.

Would adding members to the House of Representatives result in a more orderly or efficient governing system? In fact, it could have the opposite effect – imagine a House with twice as many members, committees, caucuses, and strong personalities, and you are unlikely to visualize an effective legislative body.

Adding more members would result, however, in more equitable representation among the states. Despite the uncertainties, the nation would benefit from an open debate about what representative government means in a nation of more than 300 million people. How large should a Congressional district be?

The Constitution created 65 seats in the House of Representatives, set a minimum size of 30,000 residents for a Congressional district, and mandated a reapportionment after each census. As new states entered the union and the nation's population grew, the size of the House increased every decade until 1912, when it reached the current size of 435 and the average district had 210,000 residents.

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