Today in 1929: U.S. House fixes membership at 435

June 11, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryWhen it came to the size of the House of Representatives, the founding fathers had two simple rules: No more than one representative for every 30,000 people, but at least one representative per state. James Madison, the Constitution’s chief author, had strong views on how big a legislative body could grow and still be effective. Even so, this detail was left for future congresses to figure out.

The very first Congress had just 65 representatives, but that number increased with nearly every census as the population grew and new states were added to the union.

The long-running growth in House membership came to a grinding halt in 1920, when the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress and the White House. Using the standard reapportionment method of the time, the number of representatives would have increased from 435 to 483. However, due to population shifts caused by urbanization, House Republicans actually stood to lose many of their “safe” House seats. As a result, they delayed action on reapportionment until 1929 – less than a year before the next census would begin.

On June 11, Congress passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which established a permanent method for handing out the 435 seats then in existence after each subsequent census. The Act resolved the incumbency problem by giving state legislatures more latitude in creating district boundaries (read: gerrymandering free-for-all).

While the Act limited the size of the House to 435, it did include a provision for new states to be given a single representative until the next reapportionment. This came into play only once, in 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union – and House membership reached its high-water mark of 437.

A few more interesting factoids:

  • After the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, the number of representatives jumped by 21 percent – from 242 to 292 – as former slaves were counted as full citizens in the 1870 census.
  • The average House district now contains about 650,000 constituents, a far cry from the 33,000 constituents in each district during the early years of our democracy.
  • Three states – North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – have fewer residents than the average House district.