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We The People: How the size of U.S. House affects how things get done

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 29, 2021

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: How many voting members are in the U.S. House of Representatives?

When the Founding Fathers imagined the legislative branch, they pictured two distinct bodies. The House of Representatives would be a large, diverse body that grew as the population of the country grew. The Senate would be a smaller, much more moderate body that would “cool” House legislation.

As time went on, the House of Representatives became almost too big, forcing Congress to solidify its member count, and partisan politics and polarization have made the two bodies much more similar.

“Their distinct differences have become lessened in recent years,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

There are 435 voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and it’s been that way for almost 100 years.

House membership grew until it became too unwieldy, Clayton said, and it was decided that it should stay at 435. In 1929, Congress passed the Permanent Apportionment Act, which permanently set the maximum number of representatives at 435.

How many representatives each state gets is dependent on population. Washington has 10 representatives.

When new census data comes out, the number of congressional seats each state gets is determined by dividing the U.S. population by 435. Some faster-growing states may gain a congressional seat while other, slower-growing states lose one. According to 2020 Census data, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, North Carolina and Florida will gain one seat. Texas will gain two seats. California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York will lose seats.

The House has been reapportioned 21 times since 1790.

Because of its size, the way the House operates and what it is able to pass can be much different than the Senate.

For example, leadership in the House tends to have more power than in the Senate, Clayton said. The leaders have the power to put limits on debate and determine what measures come to the floor for debate.

Because there are so many members, they serve on far fewer committees than senators, meaning House members are able to specialize in certain topics.

“Members of the Senate tend to know a little bit about everything, whereas those in the House know a lot about one or two things,” Clayton said.

The House of Representatives used to be the body with much more diversity in opinion, and because of that, much more division, Clayton said. It wasn’t unusual for radical factions on either side to show up in the House, but it was unusual for that to happen in the Senate.

That has changed in recent years as polarization and partisan politics increase, Clayton said. The Senate is just as polarized and just as divisive.

An example of that is the Build Back Better bill that passed in the House on Friday, mostly along partisan lines. After passing 220-213 in the House, the bill heads to the Senate, where Clayton said it if it passes, it will likely do so 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie.

The $2.2 trillion spending package that would fight climate change, expand health care and reform social spending is a “highly salient bill in terms of the partisan divide,” Clayton said.

In addition to the 435 voting members, the House of Representatives also has six nonvoting members. The delegates are elected by their respective populations, can serve on committees, have ranking privileges but cannot vote.

The six nonvoting members each represent the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

There has also been talk of adding delegates for some Native tribes and nations. Many treaties allow for tribes to have delegates to Congress, but none of them has been seated, Clayton said.

Part of the reason is Congress does not know the process for selecting these delegates, if the tribe would vote or if a tribal council would select one, Clayton said. Another concern is double representation for members of the tribe, who also would be represented by the member of Congress whose district includes their reservation.

As the population of the country continues to increase, there has been talk of expanding the number of voting members, but Clayton said there’s a general feeling that increasing the number would make the body even more unmanageable.

Just logistically, Clayton said compared to the Senate, House members already have cramped offices and not enough staff.

“Making it even larger would make it even worse,” Clayton said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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