The problem is congressional districts drawn to ensure incumbents can’t lose.
Yes, the Republicans in the U.S. House caused the government shutdown in defiance of the wishes of the majority of Americans — probably the majority of voters in both parties. But who gave that minority the godawful power to ignore majority rule?
Both parties did. In the last redistricting — the every-10-year redrawing of House districts to adjust for population changes — a shocking number of congressional seats became impossible for the incumbent party to lose. It is true that Republican control of state legislatures helped create more safe districts for Republican incumbents than for Democrats. But the Democratic Party still holds, by one estimate, 136 House districts in which even Anthony Weiner could win.
The fundamental problem in Washington is not that Republicans have more absolutely safe districts than the Democrats, but that both parties have so many safe districts. What’s worse is that each party helped the other to shut out democracy in congressional elections. It couldn’t have happened without both parties making it happen, and knowing exactly what they were doing.
Whether a state is redistricted by its legislature, or by a judicial panel, or by a citizen’s commission, those charged with drawing the new lines rely on proposals that are submitted to them by both parties. And both parties have the same undemocratic motive: to make their incumbents even safer than they already are. America’s Founding Fathers clearly wanted the House to be subject every two years to prevailing winds of change, but today’s parties have put most districts Under the Dome, immune even from typhoons of popular will.
The plan submitted to line-drawers by the Republican party does not mainly try to create more Republican seats. That was the old way of gerrymandering. It tries now to make the incumbent seats absolutely safe by adding more Republican voters to incumbent Republican districts. And it couldn’t do this if the Democratic Party didn’t help it to frustrate majority rule. Because the Democrats have the same goal as the Republicans — pack your districts with so many more voters of your party that the incumbent party will never lose.
So new lines are drawn that virtually preclude new members of Congress. The only way that Republicans can make their districts safer is to propose moving some Democrats from those districts and putting them in districts that already have huge Democratic majorities. And the Democrats just love this: it helps protect their districts, and lets them ship their Republicans to a district where they make no difference.
It’s you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, except that we’re not talking about scratching backs, but killing democracy.
This happens everywhere. Minnesota has a member of Congress, Michele Bachmann, who is clearly not in the mainstream even of her own party. She had a safe Republican seat. But when Minnesota recently redistricted, her seat was made even safer. Why? Because some Democrats realized that they could make some of their incumbents’ seats safer by shifting some Republicans to the adjacent Bachmann district.
So in the last election, this extremist in a moderate state was re-elected, but not by much. Her narrow victory margin was a gift from the Democrats.
I don’t mean to pick on Bachmann — members of Congress of both parties are guilty of avoiding the will of the voters. But she does come to mind because the other day, when the government shut down, aging World War II veterans were denied access to the war’s memorial in Washington, which was ringed by yellow tape. They were heartbroken, but help arrived. Michele Bachmann appeared out of nowhere and cut the ribbon, permitting the vets to approach the monument to their courage. They were grateful to her for cutting that shutdown ribbon. But whom do they suppose put it up there in the first place?
The growth of minority rule through gerrymander is the fault of both political parties. It has led not merely to a shutdown, but to intransigence and incivility that have come close to destroying our political system.
David Lebedoff is a Minneapolis attorney and author.
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