Every 10 years, following the national census, the House is forced to go through the painful process of reapportionment in which congressional district lines are redrawn to reflect population shifts.
The event is painful because it can push incumbent House members out of office. Some states are forced to give up one or more House seats to faster-growing states.On a personal basis, some House members have to choose between retirement, running in a new and unfamiliar district, or running against another incumbent who might be a friend and political ally.
The squeeze comes because there are 435 House seats and they have to be divided among the entire U.S. population so that each member represents approximately the same number of people, roughly a half-million.
One possible solution to this problem, suggested by some members of the Supreme Court, would be a return to the old system of just letting the House grow with the population.
When the country was young and expanding, House and Senate members were added with the admission of each new state. By 1850, Congress had grown to include 62 senators and 232 representatives, and they began to feel cramped in the House and Senate chambers that had been built decades earlier. So the Capitol was expanded.
But the prospect of continually enlarging the membership of the House, and the Capitol building along with it, seemed impractical, so Congress voted in 1911 to limit the House to 435 members.
Over the past 80 years the limitation has worked reasonably well, but each new census creates tensions between the states as those with the largest population gains take House seats away from slower growing states. The usual pattern is for losing states to attack the census itself, claiming inaccuracies in the count. That leads to lawsuits and court rulings.
Just last month, a federal court in Boston ruled that Massachusetts can keep all 11 of its House districts. The ruling, if upheld, could deprive Washington state of the new seat it expected to pick up this year.
The arguments will continue as long as any state faces the danger of losing some representation in Congress. So, why not just enlarge the size of the House?
The idea does not appeal to House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash.
"I would be concerned if over time we were to solve all of the difficult problems of redistricting by simply adding additional members, " the speaker said recently in response to the suggestion by the Supreme Court justices.
"The House is very large as a legislative body, and to expand it over a period of two or three decades to perhaps well over 500 would, I think, create some serious problems," Foley said.
Foley makes a good point. The House already is widely criticized for being too big and cumbersome to operate efficiently. Adding more members, along with more staff, would not improve the legislative process one bit.
That solution might make some states feel better because they would not lose representatives, but the gain would not outweigh the disadvantages.