Thursday, May 30, 2013

Congress is Too Small

And now, a brief tangent from election methods...

Stop me if you've heard this one: Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 states that each representative should serve no less than 30,000 people, and therefore the House should have over 10,000 members. That probably sounds a little crazy, and it probably is. And yet, Congress is too small. What would a better number be though? This is actually a difficult question, as well as a surprisingly touchy subject, one which has caused so much anger and vitriol in the past, that Congress has actually been afraid to re-examine the question. And so, we've had the same number of representatives—435—for over one hundred years. The House has stayed the same size for a century, even though our population has more than tripled in that time.

Ahh, you may be thinking, if our population has tripled, then we should triple the size of the House too! Right? Well, no. A linear increase (X times as many people = X times as many representatives) is the same pitfall that led to the 10,000-member House. Rather, political scientist have done a little bit of math, and their best suggestion is that the size of any legislature should be proportional to somewhere between the square-root and the cube-root of the population it represents. X times as many people = √X times as many representatives. There are a couple different specific recommendations I was able to dig up, and both fall within that range. If the population is P, they suggest (2×P)1/3 and 0.37×P0.4. Let's throw a square root example in here too. First, let's assume the Constitution is perfect; that implies 0.047×√P. Now, for a population of 308,745,538, these equations give sizes of 850, 919, and 825. Let's not forget to subtract the Senate though! So we're looking at a House of 750, 819, or 725 members. Quite an increase from 435.


It looks like the founder's initial estimate was a little low-balled. On the other hand, the number of citizens eligible to actually vote was also a lot lower than the census would suggest, so perhaps it is—in addition to being a reminder of our horrible past—at least consistent. But each equation suggest that the 1910 number was in about the right ballpark. Today? The House needs to be at least two-thirds again as large as it is now, probably even a bit larger. As a nice side-bonus, the rule about each state having at least one representative becomes redundant; even Wyoming's residents "earn" theirs just by virtue of their population and the application of the Huntington-Hill method.

These guidelines can be applied to parliaments, congresses, committees, boards, councils; any representative body. And, in practice, most organizations are pretty close. People have a pretty good gut feeling about when a representative body, isn't. When it's too small, as our congress is now, people can just feel that there's corruption. When it's too large, people can just feel that it's inefficient and full of weak candidates.


  1. Do you really think an 800- or 900-member Congress could really function? If everyone wanted to enter into a debate, and each took 5 minutes, we're talking about 70 hours, roughly. but many would want to speak longer than 5 minutes.

    In fact, there is a problem; the House is too small to give effective representation to small States orsmall groups, but too large to operate efficiently. A body the size of the Senate, filibuster and all, seems to work a lot more smoothly. senators get to know each other; Representatives do not, generally.

    I am not sure what the proper size of Congress should be, but I can't see enlarging the House.

  2. I do think it would work; I don't think 800 is flat out too many people to get any work done. But I admit, I don't have conclusive evidence to support that belief.

    India's house (and population) is larger, but it is parliamentary (so the prime minister is always supported by a majority of the legislature) so you won't see things like we have today in the US, where the house is useless because just about anything the Republicans there are willing to pass will be vetoed by the Democratic president (if it could make it through the Democratic senate, that is.)

    But, parliamentary vs. presidential government aside, there are many examples of larger legislatures. China has nearly 3,000 members in its congress. Does Chinese democracy "work"? I haven't got a clue. But those two are the _only_ nations more-populous than us, so we don't have a lot more to compare to.

    The UK's is larger; again, it's parliamentary, but worse, their population is much smaller than ours, so it's probably too big _for_them_ (like, almost 3x too big) so I'd expect it to be inefficient and full of low-quality representatives, so if it doesn't work, is it because of that, or because 650 is too many people?

    The closest example might be European Parliament; 754 members representing 500 million people. It's probably a little small. But, as far as proceedings being manageable, it does *work* (and that's with a "translate everything into a dozen languages on the fly" handicap.)

    So yes, I think it would work. There doesn't seem to be anything that would prevent a eight- or nine-hundred-member body working. But the evidence is thin.

    All the real work is done in committees even now though.