WASHINGTON — Here's yet another result of the bad economy: California's congressional delegation is unlikely to grow and could even lose a seat after next year's census for the first time since stagecoach days.
If the state loses a seat, it could weaken California's clout in Washington and reduce the amount of federal money flowing to the state. It could also set off a game of political musical chairs, forcing two incumbents to run against each other.
As if that weren't enough, the state that stands to gain the most new seats is California's longtime rival, Texas, the second most populous state.
With the possible loss of a seat, "an accurate census becomes all the more important to California," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee and a member of President Obama's transition team for the census.
As California's population has increased -- through the booms of the 1880s, the post-World War II years and the 1980s -- so has its clout in Congress.
The delegation has grown every time Congress has reapportioned House seats to reflect population changes. The state gained nine seats -- the most ever -- after the 1930 census, seven after 1950, eight after 1960, seven after 1990 and one after the 2000 count.
The delegation now stands at 53, the largest of any state.
California neighbors Arizona and Nevada are expected to gain seats, as are Texas, Florida and Georgia. Texas alone could pick up as many as four. Michigan and Ohio, hard hit by the recession, are among the states expected to lose seats.
California's population has been growing at a slower rate than those of a number of other states, a key factor in apportioning congressional seats. It grew 1.1% last year, its lowest rate in a decade.
"The economy, no doubt, held down the growth rate in California," said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.
Demographers believe that the size of California's delegation will most likely remain unchanged -- still significant because of its history of growth -- rather than decrease by one. But they also say the state is on the bubble.
"I would be very surprised if we lost a seat, but not at all surprised if we didn't gain any, based on the job growth," said Stephen Levy, director and senior economist of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.
The state is adding jobs at about the same rate as the national average after above-average job growth from the end of World War II until the early 1990s, when the economy suffered deeply from the collapse of California's aerospace industry, Levy said.
The Golden State's share of new immigrants -- legal and illegal -- has also dropped. The state has been drawing about one-sixth of new immigrants in recent years, down from one-third in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, said Jeff Passel, a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.
He added that the percentage of immigrants settling in the mountain states and Southeast has risen.
As immigration has slowed, more people have moved out of California to other states than into California from other states -- a net loss of more than 435,000 and perhaps as many as 945,000 in the last four years.
"During recessions, when California's unemployment rate is higher than the nation's, as is the case right now, we tend to experience quite a bit of outmigration," said Hans Johnson, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
The state's population has grown, nonetheless, because births and continued, albeit slowed, immigration have outpaced deaths and people moving out of California.
"Population is driven by jobs and the economy. So in this next census, I think there will be a strong correlation to the regional and state economies and population," said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There's little doubt that California is going to feel that in a special way."
Still, the fate of the state's delegation will remain unclear until after the census is completed, because the current population estimates vary.
If the state's estimate of 12.6% population growth from 2000 to 2008 is correct, Johnson said, California could still gain a seat or two in Congress. Under the Census Bureau figures of 8.5% growth since 2000, the state's congressional delegation is likely to remain unchanged.
Although the subject is arcane, size matters in Washington.
Not only is the census used to apportion strength in the House of Representatives and the electoral college, but dozens of federal aid programs are linked to population figures.
The possible loss of a congressional seat was cited by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month in creating a special panel to "make certain everyone is counted so that California gets its fair share of federal dollars and representation in Congress."
The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders has called for illegal immigrants to boycott the census to ratchet up the pressure on Congress to overhaul immigration laws, but a number of Latino House members from California have spoken out against a boycott, saying it could cost the state dearly. In its decennial count, the Census Bureau does not consider a person's legal status.
Ironically, declining home values may deter Californians from selling their homes and leaving the state.
Mary Heim, chief of the state Department of Finance's demographic research unit, said the number of people moving out of California to other states "may not reach the level of the 1990s because the economic slowdown is nationwide this time and not as concentrated in California as it was in the 1990s."