WASHINGTON — The fact that the House has 435 representatives seems etched in stone, but in fact that number was settled on only a century ago.
There’s no constitutional reason it couldn’t be some other number: 600 members, say, or 6,000.
Indeed, a retired health care consultant in Southern California, Scott Scharpen, thinks the House’s size is an egregious injustice that denies some states — OK, mostly the smaller and more rural states — the political strength they ought to have in Congress. Scharpen is so passionate about it that he started an organization last year to market his views: Apportionment.US. He’s also behind a lawsuit filed this month in a federal district court in Mississippi contending that the 1929 law limiting House membership to 435 is unconstitutional because it violates the principle of one person, one vote.
“I care a lot about America,” Scharpen says. “I call myself a patriot, and I love this country. So when I saw this kind of voting inequity, I wanted to try to fix it.”
The Constitution permits the House to set its ratio of representation up to a maximum of one House member for every 30,000 residents. Each state is guaranteed at least one representative. After all but one of the 13 census counts conducted between 1790 and 1910, the House expanded (the exception was the 1840s). A dispute over census figures forestalled the 1920 reapportionment, though, and the 1929 law set the 435 membership. But it could be changed with another statute.
The average number of people in each House district has grown steadily since then: about 280,000 in 1929; almost 700,000 now. But district populations vary widely, prompting Scharpen’s concerns. Montana’s sole House member, Republican Denny Rehberg, represents 967,000 people, while Wyoming’s only member, Republican Cynthia M. Lummis, represents almost 533,000, a constituency half the size of Rehberg’s.
A self-proclaimed conservative, Scharpen has teamed with Michael P. Farris, the conservative chancellor of Patrick Henry College, a Christian school in Loudoun County, Va., in bringing the suit. With the help of the Mississippi law firm Wilson, Hinton & Wood, they recruited five plaintiffs from the states where, in their view, the people are the most under-represented in the House: Delaware, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota and Utah.
It’s not partisan though, Scharpen says. One of his potential witnesses is University of Connecticut politics professor Jeffrey Ladewig, a self-proclaimed liberal. Ladewig thinks a larger House would benefit big states and therefore, the Democratic Party.
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