House Arrest: How an Automated Algorithm Constrained Congress for a Century

Apr 14, 2021 | by
  • Description

The US Constitution mandates that every 10 years Congress should complete a census of the nation's population and use the data to reapportion the House of Representatives, ensuring that congressional representation remains proportional to the number and distribution of its citizens. However, in 1929, Congress passed the first in a series of legislative acts that substituted an automatic apportionment algorithm in place of direct action. The accepted history of this change to apportionment contends that it was a response to the shifting demographics of the nation, and that automatic apportionment was installed to prevent rural politicians from tampering with a process that promised to decrease their power.

This report reveals a different history. By diving into the records of the 1920 census and the following decade of congressional debates, the report shows how the move to automatic apportionment was not caused by demographic shifts in the nation. Neither was it caused by a sub-standard 1920 census or by a scientific debate on apportionment methods—the other prevailing accounts. All of these were factors, but ultimately, the constitutional crisis was the result of an underlying decision to freeze the size of the House at 435 members—a move championed in the name of efficiency but rooted in further machinations over political power. The result is that even today, nearly 100 years later, we have a democratic system that is exceptionally limited, one where each American has one-third the share of representation of a century ago.