Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Dysfunctional Congress the result of dysfunctional districting

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.

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