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Census

Will West wield more political clout?

Guest author

The states of the Rocky Mountain West may be about to claim increased political clout in the U.S. Congress. Then again, maybe not.

Back in 1995, blistering growth caused political forecasters to predict the West would pick up as many as eight new representatives in Congress when the new national census was tallied at the end of the decade. Of the top 10 fastest growing states in America, six were in the Rocky Mountain West: Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Idaho and New Mexico. Montana was not far behind at number 13.

But population growth has subsided in large portions of the Rockies lately. Since 1995 four of the eight Rocky Mountain states have declined in population growth ranking relative to other states. Idaho has drifted from the second fastest growing population to sixth in the nation; New Mexico has gone from seven to 17th, and Wyoming has declined from the 20th fastest growing state in mid-decade to 45th in the latest available projections. Up here in Montana we have plummeted from 23th to 37th.

These recent slowdowns are, as Yogi Berra would say, “D vu all over again.”

Back in the mid-1980s, Montana was assured that it was gaining population at a rate sufficient to keep both of its U.S. House congressional seats. My friend Ron Marlenee and I were the two congressmen, with Marlenee representing eastern Montana and, notably, fewer people than any other member of the House.

But, not to worry the early 1980s saw a rising economy and an influx of folks to Big Sky Country. The Census Bureau projections foretold enough population by decade’s end to secure both of our congressional seats for another decade.

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Then it happened; the high times turned into recession. Our state, like all places with economies that heavily rely on natural commodities such as copper, oil, timber and wheat went into decline. Our population leveled off and, in some places, actually declined. By the time the actual census count was complete, Montana had 799,065 people 44th in the nation and just shy of what was necessary to keep both House seats. Despite a lawsuit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, we were left with only one member of Congress, ironically representing the most people of any of the 435 members of the House.

As we prepare for the new census count, I wonder if history will repeat itself: strong population growth for Montana and other Western states in the early part of the decade followed by a slowdown in the stretch run. Let’s hope not.

The people of the Rocky Mountain West are being terribly short-changed in the U.S. House. The wonderful and fairly recent political diversity of the population in the region is not being properly reflected. Too many of our House members represent the old and weary demands of the extractive industries while virtually ignoring the wishes of their more conservation-minded constituents.

The Rockies are under-represented on vital committees. Of the 61 members of the important Appropriations Committee, only three are from the region and they all hail from the Southwest. The Budget Committee has 43 members and not one is from the Rocky Mountain region.

Additional congressional representation will improve the quality of service to the region. Montana’s size and political diversity demands that the state be represented by two members of Congress rather than one. Eastern and western Montana are connected by resilient networks, but they are by no means genetic twins. Montana’s eastern high plains are wheat and cattle country. That requires a member of Congress focused on agricultural matters including trade. Western Montana’s relatively diverse and more urban economy, however, requires a different kind of representative.

Frankly, one person cannot find enough hours in the day to complete all the legislative chores necessary to properly serve all of Montana. That is also true of the immense congressional districts in other under-represented parts of the intermountain West.

The New West is a rapidly growing and increasingly diverse place. Here’s hoping the census next year will give the region the political leadership to keep pace. (Pat Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo., http://www.hcn.org. The former Montana congressman lives in Missoula, Mont.)