Congressional districts deny democracy

When Cokie interviewed President Bush a few weeks ago, the talk turned to the issue of immigration. The president has a long history of reaching out to Hispanics and advocating a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, and he’s deeply frustrated that his proposals have died on Capitol Hill.

Too many congressional districts, he said, are drawn to guarantee safe seats for one party or the other. So for many lawmakers, their only real threat comes from their “flank,” from a primary challenger who accuses them of ideological impurity. As a result, they respond to the extreme views in their own party, and won’t risk making compromises across the aisle.

Expanding on his point to the Washington Post, the president argued that the result is legislative paralysis. When lawmakers “have no worry about the general election,” they have no incentive to take “a rational position” on “polarizing, tough issues,” he said. They’re much safer playing to their base. And for most Republicans, that means decrying as “amnesty” any “rational” attempt at reforming immigration rules.

This is what the new president will face next January – a dysfunctional Congress that seems totally incapable of dealing with “polarizing, tough issues,” and the problem goes far beyond immigration. Health insurance, energy independence, budget deficits and strains on the retirement system from aging baby boomers – the list of congressional failures is endless.



Barack Obama talks a good game about getting beyond partisanship. Hillary Clinton has often worked with Republican colleagues. John McCain has a strong record of bipartisan cooperation. But all of them would face enormous obstacles in mobilizing support for their legislative agenda, and the current president is right – congressional districts are a major part of the problem.

In the last election, 375 out of 435 House members won their seats by more than 10 points. That rate of 86 percent is actually down slightly from recent elections because Bush’s unpopularity and the war in Iraq put some additional Republican seats in play. But it’s still an astounding – and deeply disturbing – number.

It means that for most Americans, their votes for Congress are meaningless. It means that most representatives are unaccountable to their voters. And America is preaching democracy to the rest of the world? When our own legislature is profoundly undemocratic?

As Bruce Reed and Marc Dunkelman of the Democratic Leadership Council wrote recently in the Post: “When members can’t lose, voters do – because it takes the pressure off Congress to get the job done.”

Winning politicians have always drawn legislative districts that favor their side. The phrase “gerrymandering” goes back to the early 19th century, after all. But several factors have made the problem worse, and the main one is technology. Computers now enable mapmakers to draw lines with great precision, vastly enhancing the ability of the victors to entrench themselves in power.

Another larger trend is also at work. The conservative Southern wing of the Democratic Party and the progressive Northern wing of the Republican Party are both facing extinction. A European model of more narrowly defined ideological parties is replacing the American tradition of diverse parties encompassing broad-based coalitions.

As a result, the vital center is being squeezed, moderate dealmakers are disappearing, and compromise – one of the most essential words in the legislative lexicon – has become a curse instead. Bush himself bears part of the blame, since his chief adviser, Karl Rove, badly escalated the districting wars by pushing through a new map in Texas after Republicans captured the state legislature in 2002.

Still, this president is right to feel frustrated that a reasonable solution to an issue like immigration doesn’t stand a chance. The question facing the next president is: Can anything be done about it?

One solution: Take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. A few states like Iowa use nonpartisan commissions, and they work well. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California tried and failed to get voter approval for a similar plan, but it was a noble effort that should be attempted again.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court considered whether a district map from Pennsylvania violated the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. Only four justices said yes, and one of them, Sandra Day O’Connor, has now retired. But the legal front is also worth pursuing.

President Bush is not a lawyer, but once he leaves office, perhaps he’d be willing to file a court brief stating what he told Cokie: The current system violates the principles of democracy and cripples the workings of government.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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