Sunday, November 13, 2005

3rd District Electing Its Last Congressman?

by Kyle Michaelis
The Omaha World-Herald suggests as much in this article from Saturday's paper. While writing about the long-term prospects for the winner of the 2006 House race in Western Nebraska - between foolish predictions that one of the surprisingly youthful candidates might serve 20 to 30 years in office - it just happens to slip that the odds for a third Nebraska district surving the 2010 census, let alone 2020, are not particularly good.

Read for yourself:
Western Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District is poised to have its youngest congressman in 44 years, giving the winner the possibility of a long political life.

The seven candidates running for the U.S. House all are younger than the youngest congressman to have won the seat - the late David Martin at age 55 - since the district was created in 1962.

The senior member in the current field is Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek, 52. The youngest is Jim Fahr, 28, a Kearney businessman.

The candidates' relative youth means the winner could parlay the seat into a 20- or 30-year reign - if the district survives congressional redistricting in 2012.

But that's a big if, said Peter Longo, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Longo said there is a good chance the state could lose a House seat after the 2010 census, if Nebraska doesn't grow as fast as other states.

"I think the reality of demographic change will - maybe - not allow us to keep a 3rd District," said Longo.

Every 10 years, congressional districts are redrawn based on new population figures. Currently, each U.S. House member represents an average of 646,952 people.

But after the new census, that number changes. The 435 House seats are reapportioned among the states, with additional seats going to those states gaining the most people.

After the 1960 census, Nebraska lost its fourth House seat and a new 3rd District was created in 1962. Martin, from Kearney, was the first congressman to be elected in the new district.

He already had served one term in the old 4th District. He was 53 when he took that office - the same age Vavricek would be if he wins and takes office in 2007. Martin served 14 years in Congress.

The two men and one woman who followed Martin were all in their 60s when taking office: current U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne was 63, Bill Barrett was 61, and Virginia Smith was 63.

Smith served 16 years, the longest of the four. Barrett served 10 years. Osborne will have served six years when he steps down after 2006.

None of the four was defeated in office. Martin, Smith and Barrett all retired, while Osborne is running for governor instead of seeking a fourth term.

The possibility of a long congressional career is not lost on the 2006 candidates, especially the younger ones.

The three top candidates for the Republican Party nomination - Vavricek, John Hanson and Adrian Smith - all say they are committed to building seniority if elected.

Hanson said constituents in the district are ready for another Virginia Smith.

"I'm 43 years old and I don't ever intend to seek any other office. I intend to win this seat and to keep it until I retire or die," said Hanson, a Kearney man who previously worked as an agricultural aide to Osborne.

Adrian Smith, a 34-year-old state senator from Gering, also said he is looking forward to a long tenure.

"Longevity is key to effective service in the House, and I'm willing to make that commitment, according to the will of the voters," Smith said.

Vavricek agreed that people in the 3rd District expect their next congressman to have a long term in office.

"I do think people have the expectation that the longer you serve, the better chance you can serve their interests," he said....

Scott Kleeb, 30, the only Democrat in the race, downplayed talk of building seniority.

"I think harnessing the energy that we have, right away, is much more important to talk about than what we can do after 30 years," said Kleeb, a Yale graduate and Dunning ranch hand.

Glad to see Kleeb talking some sense while the Republican front-runners each display detachment from reality that would surely help them fit right in Tom DeLay's Congress. When you've got a 43 year-old talking about dying in an elected office that won't survive beyond 2022 barring some miraculous population explosion, you know you've found a man who won't just say but will honestly believe just about anything.

The demographics have been pointing in this direction for some time - looks like it won't be long before Nebraska really is divided between Omaha and the rest of the state. Frankly, that will be a sad day for this state, especially its rural voters and agricultural interests. In an immediate sense, it wouldn't be very good for the Democratic Party outside of Omaha either, though there's plenty of time to change such trends and force a political realignment of Nebraska citizens.

Funny that the Republican Party that pushed for Congressional term limits a decade ago is now running candidates looking for a life-time appointment - especially in a district that was instrumental in passing term limits for our state senate (in three different elections, no less). These voters and their candidates may as well envision their disappearing district as a term limit of a different sort - that of the most unforgiving variety.

In the long-run, the only saving of Nebraska's 3rd District is likely in expanding the U.S. House in general. Until 1920, the House of Representatives grew with the U.S. population - only since then, for no constitutional reason, has the number remained frozen at 435 to be reapportioned between the states at each census. As the growing population is served by proportionally fewer representatives, there is certainly an element of Congress becoming a less democratic and less responsive body.

Here's a column from one of my least favorite ultra-conservative political writers, Jonah Goldberg, offering one proposal for reform that actually makes a lot of sense (then repeating it).

The idea of thousands of Congressional representatives certainly seems a bit extravagant, but raising the number by a few hundred seats might be an idea thats time has come.

Save the Nebraska 3rd! Bring back the Nebraska 4th? Any reform that puts actual power back in the hands of the people is one that certainly deserves consideration. Alas, good luck finding an elected representative (aside from Omaha City Councilman Jim Suttle) willing to dilute his or her own vote in the interests of democracy.


Post a Comment

<< Home