Going door to door isn't really an option

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.

Denizens of agrarian eastern Montana, for instance, can get television programming beamed into their living rooms through satellite dishes. But they also are part of the highest concentration of citizens who cannot get local TV news because stations lack the equipment.

Ideologies vary widely across the state as well. In some ways, Williams says, the town of Jordan, home of the recent uprising by the antigovernment Freemen, is as different from Missoula, a politically progressive city, as Miami is to Anchorage.

From native American issues on high-plains reservations, to dotcom companies taking root in the western mountains, to public land battles over natural resources, being a congressman from Montana can be a Sisyphean task.

"So the question is how does one person make that stretch?" Williams asks. "The truth is a single congressman can't do it all, but you won't find one incumbent willing to admit it."

Because of the size of his district, Rehberg enjoys a slight increase in his taxpayer-supported travel allowance. But his budget limits him to 18 full-time staff and four part-time workers, the same as each of his colleagues. The grueling pace of spending weekends in the West and getting back to craft laws in the East left Democrat Williams and his Republican successor, Rick Hill, who served prior to Rehberg's election, exhausted.

On trips when there are good airline connections, Rehberg spends six hours flying one-way in a plane, giving him time to catch up on reading for the two extra committee assignments on transportation and natural resources that he's taken on to bolster Montana's presence in decisions affecting the West.

If there's one advantage to representing such a vast territory, it's that it has spurred Rehberg and Montana's US senators - Max Baucus (D) and Conrad Burns (R) - to work together. "We use a tag team approach," Rehberg says. "It's bipartisan because it has to be."

How about a bigger House

To make government more responsive, Montanans offer different solutions. Williams, for one, has long pushed to increase the number of seats in the US House from 435 to 535, so a congressman wouldn't have to represent so many people. But such a move would require a constitutional amendment, and it is opposed by Republicans who don't want to increase the size of government - including Rehberg.

Still, the congressman does admit he would like to have some company in the well of the House. "As the 2000 Census figures were being prepared," he says, "nobody wanted Montana to get another congressional seat more than me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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