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In the End, 12 Is Not Much Different Than 13

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

With the loss of a House seat, members of New Jersey’s delegation will each represent 56,000 more people than they do now. Have our Congressional districts become too large?

It’s now official. New Jersey will have only 12 Congressional seats starting with the 2012 election.

Actually, New Jersey didn’t lose its 13th seat by as large a margin as many had expected. Our total population according to the 2010 Census is 8.8 million – about 100,000 more than anticipated. In fact, if we could have turned up another 63,000 people, we would have held on to the 13th seat – although Montana, Missouri, and North Carolina were in line ahead of us and needed only 15,000 more residents to pick up that extra seat for their delegations.

Back here in the Garden State, a bipartisan commission must now draw 13 districts into 12 – each with equal populations. There will be much political ado. Which two sitting Congressmen will be pitted against one another? Will an incumbent decide to “retire” as happened in 1992?

That’s the insider intrigue storyline. The more important question – at least to those of us not employed in a Congressional office – is whether the loss of this one seat will have a negative impact on New Jersey.

When it comes to major policy issues, it’s unlikely to make much of a difference. New Jersey’s share of seats in the House of Representatives will go from 3.0% currently to 2.8% after the next election. The real power comes with seniority and committee assignments. Here, the state delegation rarely has more than one or two members in positions of influence. That won’t change whether we hold 12 or 13 seats.

There may be some impact on constituent services, though. Currently, the average size of a Congressional district in New Jersey is about 676,000 persons (not counting variations due to population shifts since 1992). In 2012, the average district size will be 732,000 persons. That means that each member will have to serve an extra 56,000 residents. And constituent service is a key ingredient in one’s re-election prospects.

The loss of a House seat also means that New Jersey will have the 12th largest Congressional district size in the country. By comparison, each of Rhode Island’s two members of Congress represent only 528,000 people. On the other hand, feel sorry for the people of Montana – a state with nearly one million people and only one House member to represent them all.

This raises the larger question of whether a House of 435 Representatives is large enough to represent the interests of the more than 300 million people who live in this country.

In 1790, the average House district contained 34,000 residents. Throughout the nineteenth century, the House was periodically enlarged to account for the addition of states to the union as well as overall population growth. By 1913, the size of the House was statutorily capped at 435 members.

The purpose of imposing a limit on the size of the House was to allow for better deliberation among its members. It’s not clear that the size of the House makes it any more or less a deliberative body. And observation of its proceedings over the past couple of decades certainly gives one pause.

The argument for a smaller House may have made sense when the average size of a district was around 200,000 people. But the country’s population continued to grow rather rapidly, topping 300,000 per Congressional district in 1940, 400,000 in 1960, 500,000 by 1980, 600,000 sometime in the 1990s, and to more than 700,000 per district today.

Law, regulation and precedent stress the principle that Congressional districts should be drawn – as much as possible – to represent populations of shared interest. It’s difficult to see how we can meet that mandate when our Congressional districts must encompass nearly three-quarters of a million people.

Our neighbor to the north, Canada, with a population about one-tenth our own, has 308 seats in its federal legislature, with the typical seat representing about 100,000 people. Great Britain’s House of Commons operates with 650 members – almost every one of them representing fewer than 75,000 constituents.

Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at that decision made nearly a century ago, and assess whether it really is in the best interests of our modern Republic to have such large Congressional districts. Let the debate begin.