Time to build a bigger House | Opinion

The U.S. House has had the same number of members since 1929

The Hall of the United States House of Representatives. Getty Images.

Gov. Tim Walz is rapidly dialing back Covid-19 restrictions, yet common sense would suggest it’s still unwise to pack lots of people into a stuffy room to argue with each other.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I’d like to propose.

The room in question is the Hall of the United States House of Representatives, where you have seen Minnesota politicians like U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Pete Stauber debating the big ideas and intractable issues of our time. The Hall currently seats 435 elected representatives of every state in the union, as well as non-voting delegates from U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. We should greatly increase that number.

Expanding the size of the House of Representatives is the very first suggestion of “Our Common Purpose,” a report on how to repair and update our country’s most important infrastructure — the democratic kind. For fans of recently published Minnesota Reformer commentaries on democracy reform, this report expands on those ideas to reimagine civic culture. (And as a commission of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, you can read it online or order a free copy in the mail.) 

So why is adding more politicians into the mix a good idea?

House seats are proportionally divided among the states based on the population enumerated during the decennial census. This is different from the other Congressional chamber, the Senate, in which two Senators are elected from every state no matter its size or population. But just because House seats are fairly distributed among states doesn’t mean it’s a good shake for voters.

The House has held steady at 435 members since 1929. Since then, the country’s population has grown by about 60%. Each federal congressional district now contains on average 770,000 residents. At least in comparison to other other states, Minnesotans are represented relatively well. Our districts range from a low of 668,096 residents in the northwestern 7th to the most populous 3rd District, which covers the 730,214 souls who live in a crescent around the west side of the Twin Cities. However, even on the low end this is a staggering number of people, businesses and local interests for an elected politician to serve.

Districts vary widely by land area as well. While the aforementioned 7th is Minnesota’s least populated, it is also our largest at 35,388 square miles. Former 15-term U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson famously learned to fly a small engine plane to campaign and meet constituents. By contrast the 5th District — covering Minneapolis and its nearest suburbs — is 124 square miles and can be circumnavigated by bicycle in the better part of an afternoon.

Acreage doesn’t play into the calculus of district apportionment, but it’s worth noting the obvious point that people who live in different places have different priorities and will likely elect different kinds of candidates. Given the chance, might residents of Thief River Falls elect politicians unlike those favored in Redwood Falls? How similar are the voters who live in historic Stillwater to those residing in the Stearns County heartland? Wouldn’t someone representing south Minneapolis and its surrounding ‘burbs have a set of priorities and policies distinct from another person representing north side and its neighboring cities?

The solution is plain to see: Greatly increase the number of House members. It’s unreasonable to expect our representatives to faithfully reflect the hopes and concerns of three quarters of a million constituents. Let’s take some of the burden off. 

This nonpartisan fix will increase the diversity of elected officials simply because we’ll have more of them. It would also expand the range of policy ideas being debated. By recalibrating political representation to smaller groups with more homogeneous interests, increasing House membership would create space for viable, issue-driven third-party candidates with close community connections and an ear to the local streets. 

As a recent paper from Fordham Law School put it, “Larger legislatures make it more difficult to gerrymander effectively. If there was a state with 100 residents and 100 congressional districts, gerrymandering would be impossible; if there are 50 congressional districts, it would not be impossible, but very difficult.” 

More lawmakers with fewer residents to work for would also improve the speed and quality of constituent services, changing the dynamic of candidate accountability from partisan lip-service to plain-old service. 

These outcomes, blessed with a sprinkle of grace, may even lead to better legislating.

According to “Our Common Purpose,” “to return the House to its original proportionality of 30,000 constituents per representative would require expanding it by over 10,000 members — an obviously impractical proposal.” 

More modestly, Lee Drutman, author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America” suggests that 700 to 1,600 members might be a better place to start

Granted, this effort to bring the democratic process closer to the people won’t solve all the threats allayed against it. For one, the Senate and all of its problems would still exist. Had we increased the House membership to 1,600 a few years ago, there would likely be four times as many QAnon true believers seated as there are today. Nevertheless, the lower chamber was designed to represent the messy American body politic.

Projections from the 2020 Census predict that, if the House of Representatives remains capped at 435 members, Minnesota may actually lose a seat due to faster population growth in other parts of the country. The North Star State will be divided into just seven districts — all of them larger, more populous, and less representative than they are today. By building a bigger House instead, we’ll foster a more responsive democracy.