Wednesday, June 29, 2022
June 29, 2022

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Jayne: Is it time for a bigger House?

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

Sometimes in this job, you just need to spit into the wind. Or toss something against the wall to see if it sticks. Or run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.

Because regardless of which cliché you embrace, I have an idea: Congress needs to be larger.

I know, I know, expanding government is the political equivalent of filling an airship with flammable gas. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot. But a lot could also go right, so let’s discuss this.

The House of Representatives, you see, has been fixed at 435 members since the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929. It has remained at that number ever since (except for when two seats were temporarily added after Alaska and Hawaii joined the union), which probably is why they called it “permanent.”

But a lot has changed since then. The 1930 Census counted 122.8 million people in the United States — an average of 282,241 residents per congressional district. Now the nation has roughly 332.6 million people (the 2020 Census isn’t official yet) — an average of 764,597 per district.

All of this comes to mind with various stories about states redrawing the lines for congressional districts. In Washington, we will remain at 10 districts, which has been the number since one was added following the 2010 Census. This time around, Oregon gets to add a sixth district, having had more population growth than most states.

Here, a bipartisan commission chosen by legislative leaders will draw the new map. That is imperfect, but it is preferable to other states, where the Legislature decides. In other words, the majority party in most states gets to draw lines that help ensure it has a majority of congressional representatives.

But we didn’t come to talk about gerrymandering; we came to talk about the number of members in the House of Representatives, which was designed to be the federal body most in touch with the general populace. The House, after all, is supposed to be the chamber of origination for any tax measures, and its members face reelection every two years.

(We also didn’t come to talk about the U.S. Senate, which threatens to destroy our country. The Senate has 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, but the Democrats represent 42 million more people, with the population of states represented by both parties split in half. Add in the facts that a minority party can block almost any legislation and that the Senate skews the Electoral College, and you have a formula for destroying representative democracy.)

Now, nobody is suggesting that the U.S. House of Representatives turn into China’s National People’s Congress, where the unicameral legislature has 2,980 members. But an expansion might be a good idea.

Consider the area represented by Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. Washington’s 3rd Congressional District ranges from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern edge of Klickitat County. It encompasses seven complete counties and a sliver of Thurston County. In so doing, it covers a remarkably broad range of diverse and conflicting interests.

That is unavoidable. Diverse concerns are inherent in any large population of Americans. Unanimity of opinion is not the goal, but representation would be enhanced by reducing the number of people in each district.

One idea is the Wyoming rule. Take the smallest of the states with one representative (there are seven) and make that the baseline. Wyoming is the least-populous state, with about 579,000 people, meaning that is has the least-populous congressional district. That also means that Wyoming is over-represented in the House — not to mention its gross overrepresentation in the Senate and, therefore, the Electoral College.

Under that formula, the House of Representatives would have about 574 members — including 13 from Washington and seven from Oregon. Under that formula, the House would bring representatives slightly closer to the people. Which is kind of the point of democracy.

But, as we all know, trying to improve democracy these days is a bit like spitting into the wind.

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