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?

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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?

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.

Today the average district has a startling 650,000 people. The largest district – Nevada's Third – has 960,000 residents, and the smallest – Wyoming's single district – has 493,000.

These disparities will continue to grow. By 2040 the average district will have more than 900,000 residents. Districts could range from as few as 500,000 residents to more than 1.7 million. Almost one-third of the states in the "People's House" could have only one or two representatives. How can one person adequately represent the diversity encompassed in such a large district?

There could be additional consequences if the House is not enlarged. Consider what has happened as the North and Midwest have lost seats to the South and West. Economically conservative but socially moderate Republicans from "shrinking" states were redistricted and their voices were lost, contributing to the bitterness that marks our political debate today.

As districts continue to grow, many of the current inner-city majority-minority districts could be forced to merge with whiter suburbs. Or, minority members of Congress with contiguous districts could be forced to compete with each other for an ever-shrinking political pie.

As districts increase in size, women may have difficulty raising the amount of money necessary to compete in ever larger media markets and geographic regions. Traditionally women have not raised as much money as men in political campaigns. An increasingly diverse country could find itself represented by an overwhelmingly white male political class.

It won't be an easy task to increase the size of the House. To avoid a fiasco, Congress could decide on a procedure for increasing the number of seats – and allocating them – that occurs automatically every decade, so they do not have to endure the debate each decade (a debacle each decade).

In the 19th century, increasing the size of the House and the way those seats were allocated caused major problems each decade. Congress might also consider a system that increases the size of the House by the growth of the population each decade (or, half of the growth to start slowly) and continue to leave the actual allocation among the states to the Census Bureau, as is now the case.

Given current population projections, there would be about 44 new seats in 2010 and 41 more in 2020. The House would increase gradually as our population grew. Another option is to determine the number of members based on the size of the smallest district – using this system we would have about 600 members today.

We can and must debate the size of the "People's House." The equity and effectiveness of a "government of the people, by the people and for the people" is at stake.

Jane Delung is the president of the Population Resource Center in Princeton, N.J. Judith A. Himes is a consultant and former associate director there.

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