Dysfunctional Congress result of dysfunctional districting
By Mark B. Evans
So now that there’s going to be no deal on sequestration, some of you will be singing the Sequestration Blues due to all the cuts and their possible deleterious effects on our local and state economies.
Others of you may be jumping for joy that finally some federal spending is getting cut.
But all of you, no matter your opinion on sequestration, are unhappy with the Congress and its failure to do much of anything.
It’s getting tiresome writing about the dysfunctional Congress and the childish behavior of its members.
Congress hasn’t worked the way it’s supposed to since at least 1995 when then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich played chicken with President Bill Clinton and shutdown the U.S. government.
The funny thing is, the fault lies not with the Congress but with us. We elected these knuckleheads. And then we re-elected them. And re-elected them. And re-elected them. And …
Every two years, at least 90 percent of Congressional incumbents are returned to Washington followed immediately by our kvetching about how rotten the Congress is.
So perhaps it’s not the Congress that’s dysfunctional, but America?
Well, that doesn’t sound right, either, does it? So what’s wrong?
In the days before computers, spreadsheets and Google Maps, political districting was more voodoo than science. Determining not only voter registration but voter behavior precinct by precinct was not just hard, it was practically impossible.
That’s not the case today. Political cartographers, if you will, have enormous amounts of computerized data available to them that allows them to draw a political district house-by-house if they wanted.
They not only know where you live and what party (if any) you’re registered with but how often you vote. A registered voter who votes is far more valuable than one who doesn’t, or who does so infrequently.
This data has been used the past 30 years to gerrymander Congressional districts to the advantage of whichever party is in power in a state.
The result is an increasing number of “safe” districts in which candidates for Congress need only worry about their party primaries because the general election will be a slam dunk.
According to an analysis of the 2000 election done by Congressional Quarterly, about 82 percent of the 435 House seats were considered “safe” for the incumbent.
The number has gone up since the 2010 round of redistricting.
That means almost all members of the House need not pay attention to or be concerned with points of view different than theirs. Only their party matters.
In fact, if a House member were to listen to a member of the other party and an act in a bipartisan way, it would virtually guarantee unelection in the next primary for being a party apostate.
As for the Senate, its problem mostly has to do with cowardice; that is, both parties are terrified of getting rid of the filibuster because they need it to vex the majority and prevent it from passing legislation the minority doesn’t like.
And so the result is we get a polarized, uncompromising, dysfunctional Congress.
So what’s the solution? Strangely, Arizona is among the state’s leading the way by creating a bipartisan redistricting commission that is required by law not to give a party a particular advantage.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way the past two rounds, but it mostly has. There are still safe districts in Arizona, but that’s mostly due to the racial gerrymandering required by the federal government. The state’s redistricting commission is forced to balance the safe racial seats (which happen to be Democratic) with safe Republican seats.
If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act this year, then in 2020, the state’s redistricting commission will be better able to balance the state’s Congressional districts.
If all the states followed Arizona’s lead and created a majority of districts in which candidates for office had to be concerned with securing the votes of all types of voters, not just their party’s faithful, then we might see in 2022 a more balanced and more functional Congress.
Of course, we also might see pigs fly, too.
The power to reform Congress lies with us. We can keep doing what we’ve been doing the past few decades and keep complaining about it, or we can choose to fix the problem by fixing the districts.
A pox on “competitive” districts: Let us stop and pay homage to Elbridge Gerry
By Emil Franzi,
Southern Arizona News-Examiner
Mark Evans blames dysfunctional government on the method we use to assign legislative representation. If we could just make the 435 members of Congress come from more “competitive” districts then we would have less ideologues and more compromise and eliminate gridlock.
There are several fundamental problems with this popular but flawed analysis.
Mark is one of the folks who believes if we can just acquire enough people who are totally uncommitted to any coherent philosophy of governance or economics, these folks will all get together and DO SOMETHING! And somehow that will work out for the best.
Try this. How about those who complain that Congress or State Legislatures or City Councils need to have a “bi-partisan compromise” to resolve any specific problem first tell us what the specific compromise should be? It’s a cheap shot to blame your elected officials for not listening to you when you really haven’t bothered to offer any concrete proposal yourself. Why do you assume that the answer to everything is somewhere in the middle of all the views presented without even bothering to consider any of the always present unintended consequences?
Just ordering your representatives to “do something” doesn’t help the problem unless you have some idea what the “something” should be.
Want to make it worse? Elect more people who don’t have a clue either or who will wait around for you to get one. Or worse, will get spooked into action by special interest groups including the perceived mainstream media which is the biggest one of all.
Mark’s worst error is concluding that the process known as Gerrymandering, where legislative districts are designed to match a specific constituency to a specific set of candidates, has somehow grown with technology. Technology may have refined it a little, but it was probably a known process as early as the first city council election in Ur.
In America, it is called “Gerrymandering” for Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry who was in office when the state legislature reapportioned and had one district that wound through the state that looked like a snake or a “salamander” causing those it didn’t favor to name it after Elbridge.
Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard :G”) was a distinguished Founding Father, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the 30% of those who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 who refused to sign the final document. He was a Jeffersonian in a basically Federalist state, hailed from the cultural outlying community of Marblehead, and was James Madison’s second Vice-President, dying in office in 1813.
They knew well how to cut district lines in his times using an abacus and a quill pen. The study of human behavior via computer gives as many more chances to misread data as it grants advantages in speed. Try the Romney campaign and the pollsters who predicted his victory as examples.
The method is nothing new and was actually much more prevalent in the past than now. We spent the first 175 years of the Republic assigning the members of the US House of Representatives to the states to do with as they pleased. Until 1965, they didn’t even have to be assigned by population WITHIN the state. If anything that, and other rules involving ethnic minorities which established “separate but equal” districts, has diminished the ability to Gerrymander to such a degree that one could make the argument that is actually more competitive districts that lead to gridlock.
Who do you believe is the most likely to make a courageous but unpopular decision – a politician from a relatively safe district or one from a marginal one with multiple interest groups and an opposition party ready to pounce?
Who do you think is most likely to roll over and support every half-assed idea his pollsters say is popular today?
Why do you believe that there are some magic answers available in the middle of all the proposed solutions to most problems?
Why do you believe that government can solve or even aid in solving every problem or even most of them?
Why do you want to limit the choices for representation by we who have actually paid attention to those problems in favor of the casual and ignorant voters who haven’t?
Your turn for a second round, Mark.
In the meantime I will quietly celebrate July 17th as a personal holiday, the birthday of that great American Elbridge Gerry.