A Bigger Congress Would Just Make More Noise

Expanding the House of Representatives is a bad idea.
More isn't always better. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

A familiar idea returns as Sean Trende argues in favor of a Big House. That is, a significant expansion of the House of Representatives.

Trende's case for a modestly bigger chamber, perhaps from 435 seats to some number between 550 or 650, is well-argued. He's right that there is a problem of malapportionment with single-representative states. He's also right that demographic descriptive representation, or creating a House that "looks like" America, would be more manageable if there were more, smaller, districts.

Nevertheless, I think the Big House is a bad idea, both on electoral and governing grounds.

For elections, it would probably mean fewer voters in competitive districts, and less media attention to each individual election. Given the way redistricting works in most states, competitive districts are what's left after both parties have grabbed the solidly partisan areas. That means there are often are as few competitive districts in California and Texas as there are in states with only a handful of seats. So a bigger House would likely leave us with about the same number of competitive districts as we have now, but with fewer people in each. And with more races to cover and each one a little less important, the resources devoted by the media to individual elections probably would decrease. That's good news for incumbents, but bad news for competition and democracy.

What about inside Congress? A Big House means more influence for the leadership, and less for each member. That's exactly the opposite of what the House needs. Adding 100 or 200 or more backbenchers, with little responsibility and little hope of moving into more responsible positions, would make current trends even worse. Trende compares the House to other world legislatures, but few of them are as transformative as the U.S. Congress. Adding do-nothing bulk would be bad for the House in a way that just doesn't matter in most democracies.

I understand the surface appeal of reducing the voters-to-representative ratio. But unless we're to have a House with tens of thousands of members, there's no way to get back back to 19th century levels. Sorry, Big House.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.