Going Door to Door Isn't Really an Option

By Wilkinson, Todd | The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

Going Door to Door Isn't Really an Option


Wilkinson, Todd, The Christian Science Monitor


Here was Denny Rehberg's recent commute to work:

He leaves from a meeting in Helena, Mont., on a Sunday night. He flies north to Great Falls. He picks up a flight going west to Seattle. He grabs another plane going east to Detroit. One more connecting plane, going south, and he arrives in Washington, D.C. in time for a 6 p.m. vote in the US House of Representatives - 17 hours later.

Welcome to the wacky transportation world of Congressman Rehberg, Montana's lone representative, who oversees the largest district in the contiguous United States.

In case you're wondering, that's an area covering 145,000 square miles - the equivalent of 10 northeastern states. Some of his congressional colleagues from New York City oversee districts encompassing 15 square blocks.

Mr. Rehberg, a mustachioed rancher from Billings, isn't put off by the distances. Like his predecessors, the freshman Republican has vowed to visit all of Montana's 56 counties and most of its 300 towns during his two-year term.

To do it, however, will require a lot of airline pretzels and time spent in jeeps and rental cars: By his count, because of limited air service in parts of the state, hitting all the counties will involve driving 19,000 miles.

"Probably the hardest logistical downside is how much time you spend in the car," says the congressman's press secretary, April Gentry. "On top of that, it's hard in rural areas to multitask. You don't have cellphone reception in many areas because of the remoteness, and there's often no fax machine where you're staying."

Not enough growth

Therein lies the major problem: how to stay in touch with all his constituents. While Montana's population grew over the past decade to about 910,000 residents, it didn't keep pace with the growth in Sun Belt states, which emerged as the big winners in the redistribution of congressional seats.

According to some observers, like Montana's former nine-term US representative Pat Williams, who retired in 1996, the population- based formula makes it extremely difficult for citizens in large rural Western states to have their voices heard.

Montana isn't alone in this problem, of course. Its spacious neighbor to the south, Wyoming, also has just a single delegate in the House.

"It seems to me that we are losing the Founding Fathers' notion of the US House of Representatives being the people's House," says Mr. Williams. "If the objective is to have members who are in constant communication with their constituents, the direction we are headed puts that in serious jeopardy."

And those constituents are a diverse lot. True, Montana is known for its isolated landscapes that have attracted the likes of the Unabomber, Freemen, and antigovernment militia members. But Rehberg and Williams note that the state is a true crossroads between the prosaic Old West and the technology-driven New Economy. …

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