On November 9, shortly after the United States’ 2018 midterm elections, the New York Times published an editorial in favor of a larger House of Representatives. The Times argues a greater number of representatives would create a more, well, representative lower chamber. The newspaper calls for 593 members in the House, a dramatic increase from the body’s current membership of 435.
One of the writers’ central points is this: In apportioning its larger legislative chamber, the United States Congress is severely out of line with the rest of the modern world.
The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it overlooks a crucial feature of the American legislative process — namely, the powerful function of the Senate and the distinctive way in which its members are elected.
Unlike many other western nations, which have often done away with or neutered their “aristocratic” upper chambers, the United States has proudly maintained the position of its Senate in legislative affairs. An argument can even be made that, in order of importance to the function of the federal government, the Senate comes before the House of Representatives, as the upper chamber alone is responsible for granting “advice and consent” to presidential appointments.
This is not the case in, for example, the United Kingdom, where the House of Lords is composed of appointed members who rarely block the will of the House of Commons, the true seat of effective legislative power. Nor is it the case in France, Germany and Canada, where the upper house of the legislature is, in general terms, subordinate to the will of the lower house.
In its editorial, the Times makes a point to compare the overall membership of Congress — not just the number of representatives — to that of the larger chambers in other national legislatures. However, this too misses the mark, as the average United States senator represents many more constituents than the average representative, granting an extra layer of representation to each American citizen in the process.
Combining these two types of congressional offices is akin to counting the number of apples and oranges in one basket, then comparing the total to another basket filled solely with apples. It just isn’t a fair and even analysis.
That’s why I find this chart, published in the Times’ editorial, a bit misleading:
As a United States citizen, I am represented in Congress by three officials: the representative of my congressional district and the two senators of my state. While it is true that my representative’s district is much larger in population than, for example, the average parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom, I have the added benefit of representation through two senators — something for which the above chart does not, and cannot, account.
Now, that is not to say I am necessarily opposed to increasing the membership of the House of Representatives. In fact, I find another chart, also published in the Times’ editorial, makes a compelling case for a larger House on the basis that the number of seats has reached a plateau. The current number of representatives, 435, hasn’t changed since 1911. Consequentially, the average congressional district has become much more populous.
However, we must be realistic in comparing the United States Congress to other national lawmaking bodies. Americans’ representation in Congress — which, through the Senate, effectively includes multi-member districts — is simply of a different sort than that of other democracies lacking a true bicameral legislature.
The United States seems to be an outlier due to Congress’ unique structure. While that is not in itself a reason to amend the size of the House of Representatives, neither is it a reason to blindly adhere to the status quo. ■