If you want to know why the congressional debt reduction commission failed so miserably, one reason (among many) is clearly visible in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer is trying to torpedo one of the few efforts anywhere in the country that might modulate the holy war now ravaging Capitol Hill.
Eleven years ago, in a spasm of good sense, the voters of Arizona decided that politicians should no longer control the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. Instead, they gave that power to a five-member commission composed of two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent chairman.
The innovation was important for two reasons. First, politicians always draw lines that protect themselves and their parties, while depriving most citizens of any real choice in who represents them. They even admit their goal is to pick their voters instead of having the voters pick them. And second, lawmakers from safe districts have little incentive to listen to, or work with, members from the other party. In fact, their only real fear is a primary challenge from a rival accusing them of insufficient orthodoxy.
This helps explain why the debt reduction panel was so paralyzed. For most House members today, reasonableness is far riskier than rigidity. The same virus has infected senators as well, even though they run statewide. In 2010, three sitting senators lost their primaries, almost as many as in the previous 26 years combined, reports the National Journal. As former Sen. Jack Danforth, a Missouri Republican, told the Journal, “There is more of a demand in each party for a degree of purity or inflexibility that was not there before.”
Back to Arizona. After the 2010 census, the independent commission, headed by civic leader Colleen Mathis, set to work redrawing congressional lines. But Gov. Brewer was outraged that Mathis and her panel actually did what they were supposed to do – create districts that did not favor one party over the other. In a breathtaking power grab, Brewer fired Mathis, and all 21 Republican state senators backed her up. (The governor also wanted to bounce both Democrats from the commission, but the lawmakers choked on that bone.)
Immediately Mathis challenged her ouster. In a hearing before the state Supreme Court, the governor’s lawyer, Lisa Hauser, set a new standard for arrogance, arguing that the governor had unlimited power to remove the commission’s chairman. A justice asked Hauser if that meant the governor could jettison Mathis if she didn’t like the chairman’s dress or haircut. Yes, answered the lawyer. The court took less than three hours to give Mathis her job back.
But this fight is far from over. Brewer is still filing lawsuits against Mathis, and even if Brewer loses, most other states still play by the old rules, allowing politicians to draw district lines that reinforce the “purity” and “inflexibility” that Danforth laments. And while there’s nothing new – or inherently wrong – about a healthy degree of partisanship, Congress is far more divided along ideological lines than it was just 30 years ago.
A National Journal study in 1982 measured the most liberal Republican (Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island) and the most conservative Democrat (Larry McDonald of Georgia) in the House. That year, fully 344 House members had voting records that fell between those two poles, mainly progressive Republican “gypsy moths” from the Northeast and conservative Democratic “boll weevils” from the South.
They were the centrists, the pragmatists, the deal makers, and today they have virtually disappeared. In the last Congress, only nine House members strayed from their own party line, and only one of them, Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina, still serves in Washington.
As we say, there are many reasons for this polarization, but most of them cannot be fixed – and should not be fixed – by public policy. Special interest groups, for example, pour money into campaigns and demand strict allegiance in return, and virtually any attempt to rein them in would violate the First Amendment. Purist pontificators on talk radio, cable TV and rabble-rousing websites reinforce ideological canons and threaten reprisals against heretics – and they have every right to do so.
One area that can be reformed, however, is the way district lines are drawn. If more states followed Arizona’s example and turned the job over to independent commissions, lawmakers would no longer be insulated from the very people they profess to represent. They might even be forced to listen occasionally – to their voters across town and their colleagues across the aisle. And they might actually do something about the national debt.
Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah,” was published last spring by HarperCollins. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.