How the House Went from Anti-Urban to Pro-Urban in 8 Years

When you write about the history of federal mass transit policy (as I have), one thing seems disconcerting. The House of Representatives, now the more pro-urban chamber, used to be the more anti-urban chamber, and held back urban issues and programs for years in the 1950s and 1960s:

  • The Senate passed a mass transit aid bill in 1960 but it never came out of committee in the House.
  • The Senate then passed a temporary mass transit aid package as part of a housing bill in 1961 and the House cut it in half before reluctantly agreeing.
  • The Senate passed a bill in 1962 establishing a permanent mass transit aid program but that bill never made it to the House floor.
  • In February 1962, the House voted resoundingly, 264 to 150, to reject President Kennedy’s proposed reorganization plan creating a Department of Urban Affairs and Housing.
  • The Senate passed a bill in April 1963 establishing a permanent mass transit aid program that went nowhere in the House until in 1964, President Johnson decided to devote his whole lobbying effort to getting the bill to a bare majority and it finally passed (barely) in June 1964, 212 to 189.
  • By June 1965, at the height of the 295-Democratic-seat “Great Society Congress,” the House narrowly voted (217 to 184) to approve the creation of a Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But by 1970, the House would be voting, 328 to 16, for a massive expansion of federal mass transit funding, with annual funding levels more than 10 times what Kennedy and Johnson had provided. In 1972, transit interests were strong enough to kill the biennial highway bill for the first time since World War II because it did not allow Highway Trust Fund moneys to go towards mass transit. And then, in 1973, the House passed the law opening the Trust Fund, at local option, to mass transit.

How did the House go from being the much more anti-urban, anti-transit chamber to being the more pro-urban, pro-transit chamber in such a short period of time?

Four words: “One person, one vote.”

In March 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Baker v. Carr case from Tennessee (369 U.S. 186 (1962)). The Court ruled that federal courts have the authority to determine that state legislative district maps that don’t evenly distribute population are a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

This case started an avalanche of “one person, one vote” court decisions. The Supreme Court applied the principle directly to the U.S. House of Representatives in February 1964 in the Wesberry v. Sanders decision (376 U.S. 1 (1964)), a Georgia case, where the Court ruled that “While it may not be possible to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, that is no excuse for ignoring our Constitution’s plain objective of making equal representation for equal numbers of people the fundamental goal for the House of Representatives.” (376 U.S. 18)

State-by-state implementation of Wesberry was piecemeal depending on the status of lawsuits in various states and the legislature’s willingness to redraw seats between decennial Censuses. Some states did it in time for the 1964 elections, and some for 1966, 1968, and 1970. Then, after the 1970 Census, every state’s Congressional map was redrawn for the 1972 elections in a way consistent with the new one-person, one-vote principle (and the Voting Rights Act of 1965).

In 1988, political scientists Matthew D. McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz quantified what the implementation of one person, one vote meant for urban representation versus rural representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

They found that 75 U.S. House seats in existence immediately prior to the Wesberry decision which were at least 90 percent rural were written out of existence by January 1973. Meanwhile, 64 new U.S. House seats that were at least 90 percent urban were created.

On the not-quite-so-extreme part of the spectrum, they found that an additional 22 House seats that had been 60 to 90 percent rural were abolished, and 16 new seats that were 60 to 90 percent urban were created in their place. (They use statistical metropolitan areas, not “urbanized areas,” as the definition of a non-rural place.)

Add it together, and 97 House seats that had been at least 60 percent rural were abolished from 1964 to 1972 and replaced with 80 seats that were at least 60 percent urban and an additional 17 seats that were 40 to 60 percent urban.

97 seats is almost one-fourth of the 435-member House of Representatives. And since Democrats held wide House majorities during this time (ranging from 295 seats after the 1964 elections down to 242 seats after 1972), this rapid urbanization happened predominantly in the Democratic Caucus.

Knowing that nearly one out of every four House seats flipping from somewhere between majority-rural and super-rural in 1964, to somewhere between medium-urban and super-urban in 1973, it should not be surprising that federal aid programs that provided funding primarily to rural areas would feel the need to re-evaluate their strategies.

In 1973, the new highway bill for the first time allowed the historically rural-focused federal-aid highway program to pay for urban mass transit expenses instead of highways (at local option).

And also in 1973, the rural-oriented farm bill for the first time included a nutrition title, funding subsidy programs for (largely urban) eaters of food alongside the subsidy programs for the (rural) people who grow and raise food.

(These were and are the only two bills providing non-appropriated benefit programs for primarily rural interests that don’t have permanent funding, meaning that Congress has to vote every few years to provide massive amounts of new budget authority, and they both felt the need to cut urban interests in at the same time in 1973? Coincidence? Hardly.)

By doing so, the sponsors of those historically rural-focused programs were able to build durable rural-urban vote coalitions that allowed those recurring bills to continue and keep getting bigger and more urban as the decades went on.

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