The Case for Expanding the House
Here in Southern California, the biggest development in recent weeks has been the announcement that hyper-liberal congressman Henry Waxman — who’s held a House seat from the Los Angeles area for 40 years — is finally stepping down at the end of the current session.
Given how long Waxman has dominated the politics of the area, it’s no surprise that there’s a long list of candidates lining up to succeed him. There’s another reason, however, for the glut of competition: this is an enormous district of wildly divergent communities. In my weekly column for the Orange County Register, I argue that this stems from a mistake in how we’ve organized the lower chamber for the past 85 years:
The physical distance between the northwestern edge of Waxman’s 33rd District, in Malibu, and its southeastern terminus, in San Pedro, is more than 40 miles. The cultural difference can only be measured in light years. The South Bay, the Westside, the Conejo Valley, and the coastal refuges of Pacific Palisades and Malibu are all worlds unto themselves, populated by citizens who view themselves as distinct from one another. The idea that they should all be represented by one person in Congress makes a mockery of the notion that House districts represent discrete, coherent communities.
That sort of absurdity is inevitable, however, given the fact that the House was severed from its original purpose 85 years ago, when Congress passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929. That law fixed the number of seats in the House of Representatives at 435, dictating that the available seats would be redistributed among the states based on population changes in each census, instead of adding new ones, which had been the historical practice (the House had grown to 435 from its original number of only 65). As a result, the average House district now consists of over 700,000 people – a far cry from the original system, where there was one representative for approximately 33,000 souls.
Whoever inherits Waxman’s seat will represent more people than the U.S. senators from the states of Wyoming or Vermont. Were the ratios employed by the founders still in use today, California’s 33rd Congressional District would actually be split into 21 discrete House seats.
Returning to that standard may be overkill; it would swell the ranks of the House of Representatives to over 9,500 members. Some expansion, however, is surely justified to create House districts small enough to actually represent something like the will of a coherent community. Until such changes are made, the notion of the House as the “people’s chamber” will be little more than a touch of historical nostalgia.
I’ll also note that having an enlarged House would (A) make it harder for special interests to capture critical masses of legislators and (b) have the practical effect of making it cheaper to run for Congress and allowing more true citizen-legislators to emerge. In short, it would make it harder to consolidate power in Congress—which is precisely why most sitting lawmakers won’t support it…and why it’s the right thing to do.