Posts Tagged ‘Gerrymandering’

The Thinker

Obama’s new long-game

President Obama’s biggest mistake was probably roasting Donald Trump at the 2011 National Press Club dinner. It likely infuriated Trump and led to his run for the presidency some years later and the current national disaster we are experiencing from his presidency. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think if Obama hadn’t lampooned him, Trump might still be busy laundering money by selling his condos at inflated prices to foreign investors.

Obama’s second biggest mistake was probably missing the 2010 midterm wave that turned control of Congress over to Republicans. Obama did what he could do. He certainly traveled the country and campaigned for Democrats and exhorted Democrats to turn out. But they didn’t. Republicans however did turn out massively, adding 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Eight years later Democrats are still reeling from this election. They are now hoping for a turn of the tide this November, similar to their success in the 2006 midterms.

Arguably it was what Republicans did after the 2010 midterms was much more important than that midterm results themselves. They used the wave of enthusiastic Republicans (many Tea Party affiliated) and Democrat apathy to gain control of more state legislatures and governorships. They also set up Operation REDMAP that worked relentlessly to flip Democratic state seats using two assets that Republican have in abundance: money and mean-spirited tenacity. This allowed them to control the redistricting process in ten out of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts as a result of the 2010 census. Then they used the power of analytics to create highly gerrymandered districts to lock in their majorities. Since this redistricting effort, Republicans have picked up seats in states where Democrats took the majority of the votes, demonstrating the fundamental unfairness of their highly partisan gerrymandering effort.

Now out of office Obama is free to do what he does best: play a long game. Which is why he and former Attorney General Eric Holder have created the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Curiously though the NDRC goal is not to bring about Democratic gerrymandering, but to kill gerrymandering altogether. President Obama has put his finger on the nub of the real problem: gerrymandering is deeply undemocratic and must be killed to have a real democracy. What we are getting instead is bordering on autocracy.

The committee has four strategies to do this. The first is litigation, and here they have had great success. They challenged Pennsylvania’s highly gerrymandered map in court and succeeded in having it redrawn to be fairer, giving no party an unfair advantage. This will likely mean four House seats in Pennsylvania will flip in the election from Republican to Democrat, simply because of a more even playing field now. Similar efforts are underway in other states like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. In some states there are voter initiatives to make gerrymandering illegal, taking district drawing out of the control of politicians altogether.

The second strategy is to mobilize people in this effort. Toward that end I am getting mobilized, first by donating money to their cause but potentially in other ways too. Here in Massachusetts though, our districts are generally drawn pretty fairly already.

The third strategy is reform: passing laws in states to enact fairer redistricting laws. Here they have the support of Americans who generally disdain gerrymandering, 71 percent in favor according to one poll. I’ve complained about it before, noting that its worst sin was that it removed most moderates from political offices. Moderate politicians are the key to getting government working again.

The last strategy is to elect Democrats where it helps even the playing field. Here, working with other Democratic groups, they’ve had great success in many special elections since Trump was inaugurated. When Democrats trounce Republicans in special elections in Oklahoma, you know something is up.

There is no guarantee that getting rid of gerrymandering will necessarily mean that Democrats will control Congress and state legislatures again. But gerrymandering is the root of a much larger set of problems. When there were many moderates in office, political accommodation was possible. In the past, meeting in the middle was how government got things done. It was sometimes messy, such as in earmarks for congressional districts, but it did create a political space where such accommodations were possible.

So I’m in with Obama and Holder in playing this long game. Democracy is not possible if there is no space for political accommodation. In that sense this effort is very patriotic and perhaps the ideal response to our age of fake news and our fake presidency. For democracy to flourish, we all need a realistic chance to sit at the table again. We’ve lost that.

 
The Thinker

The oligarchy in charge

Based on polls, only 25% of Americans want Congress to enact the Republicans’ tax “reform” plan. A look at the proposed plan (which will likely change substantially before getting a vote) makes it easy to see why: despite all the hoopla, there is nothing in it for most of us, since most of us are not wealthy.

If you are wealthy, well, it looks pretty good. Less than 1% of us will owe an estate tax when we pass on, but Republicans want to get rid of that altogether. By creating fewer tax brackets, more of us will pay at the 25% tax rate meaning the 28% tax rate goes away. So if you make over $156K, you will pay less tax than you did before, but probably not if you make less than this. To be taxed at the 35% level you would have to make more than $260K, which means the 33% rate disappears for those whose income is between $156K and $238K, effectively a tax cut for them. As for that top tax rate of 39.6% which applies now if you make over $480K, if this bill becomes law, you will have to earn more than $1M to pay this rate. That’s a lot of savings for those in the $480K to $1M bracket.

A lot of these tax rates though become just theoretical for the rich. Since many of the rich own LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations) they can pass income to themselves at a “pass-through” rate. It is now 20%, which meant most of these people saved money on their taxes because if this money were considered as ordinary wages they’d pay at a higher tax rate. This rate goes to 25% in the plan, but it’s still less of a tax rate than anyone making over $260K would pay if this income were counted as wages.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us this attempt to “simplify” the tax code means we’ll probably be paying more. There was a somewhat theoretical tax rate of 10% for those earning up to $19K. The rate changes to 12% so in principle the poor pay more than they do now. Those taxed at the 15% rate, which is most of us, will be taxed at 12% for income up to $77K. That sounds good but look what they are taking away: no deductions for state and local income taxes (which affects mostly blue states), no deductions for student loans (claimed by 25% of filers) and limitations on home interest deductions. The standard deduction goes up meaning fewer of us will itemize, which could have ripple effects like fewer of us giving to charities.

The bottom line is that at best most of us ordinary wage earners will be coming out even, but are more likely to be paying more taxes through a lot of smoke and mirrors, while the rich will generally pay a lot less. Oh, and that corporate tax rate falls, good if you are a corporation. However a lot of the old loopholes that keep many corporations from paying taxes remain in place. And to finance all of this there will be increased deficit spending.

So it’s unsurprising there’s little support for the plan as it’s pretty obvious who the winners and losers will be. And the winners will be those who financed the campaigns of these Republicans, i.e. the oligarchy. As Jimmy Carter noted, we no longer have a democracy, but an oligarchy. This stinky, duplicitous tax bill pretty much proves it.

How else would a bill that has 25% support make it through Congress? Most representatives are gerrymandered into safe districts. It’s all by design so incumbents can keep their jobs, so of course they are going to do the bidding of those who funded their campaigns instead, at least if they think they can get away with it. They need special interests to fund their next one. Which is why they have to do this now somehow. It has to be done before the year is up so there is plenty of time for the smoke to clear before next year’s midterm election.

While it all looks pretty bleak, it’s not. This bill and any subsequent amendments to it are more likely to fail than not. And this is because (blessedly) the oligarchy does not vote as a bloc. They each have their own interests at heart, which often conflicts with someone else’s interests. For example, the bill writers have proposed limiting the mortgage interest deduction. This has the National Association of Home Builders up in arms. They have vowed to defeat the bill unless this proposal is removed from the bill. Remove it though (like the proposal to end deductions for 401K savings, since rescinded) and something else has to replace it.

And this is because Republicans are trying to do this on their own using the Senate’s budget reconciliation rule, which allows bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. The other way would be to make it a matter of regular order, and that would mean that Democrats would have input into the legislation. Such legislation would likely pass and get broad support, but it wouldn’t resemble what the oligarchy wants. Can’t have that!

Yes, our tax code is a mess but it’s a result of lots of compromises along the way. It has its own inertia because reconciling all these conflicting interests happened long ago and has slowly evolved along the way. Our tax code is already a huge gift to corporations, LLCs and the wealthy. This bill is just trying to make it more so and is doing so using the unorthodox procedure of violating the normal committee process. I hope that like getting rid of Obamacare before it, it too fails. As bad as our tax code is, this makes it worse and increases our deficit, the one thing Republicans supposedly care most about, at least when Democrats are in charge.

Americans aren’t buying it. But don’t take it for granted that this will fail too. Call your representative and senators to let them know you know it’s a con, and you will hold them accountable at reelection.

 
The Thinker

The tyranny of the minority

I’ve written so much about our gun problem in the nearly fifteen years my blog has been around that I pretty much have said it all. In a sense this week’s rampage that killed 59 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas was fated to happen.

Sensible people wonder why we can’t seem to do anything about it, given that sensible gun control legislation is supported by a majority of Americans. It’s easy to say it’s because the NRA owns enough legislators to keep it from happening. In reality it’s a symptom of a much larger and possibly intractable problem: the tyranny of the minority.

It’s so big a problem that it is hard to see. I confess I did not fully understand its dimensions until I read this op-ed in the Washington Post by E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. While the op-ed talks about gun control, its implications are staggering. It explains why according to a recent poll only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. In this country the tail wags the dog.

The tail in this case is rural states. Remember that in the Senate all states are equal. So Montana with roughly one million people in it has the same clout in the Senate as California, which has 39 million people. Ending the Senate’s filibuster rule would likely make the tyranny of the minority even worse. As the author’s point out:

Ending the filibuster would not solve the problem; in some cases, it might aggravate it. As The Post’s Philip Bump has noted, if all 50 senators from the 25 smallest states voted for a bill and Vice President Pence cast his lot with them, senators representing just 16 percent of Americans could overrule those representing 84 percent.

We have a federalist system. In theory each state within our union is an independent nation. Each state has voluntarily ceded some of its sovereignty to the federal government. The Senate is the institution that recognizes this sovereignty by making each state equal within the body. In short, the Senate has a rural bias. In the beginning the difference did not mean too much. But as new states emerged the implications became clear. For example, at one time there was to be a state called Dakota. The people living there realized though that they could double their impact by applying for recognition as two states: North Dakota and South Dakota even though the two states are very homogenous.

The depressing part is that there is almost nothing we can do to change the Senate. It would take a constitutional convention. It’s hard to see why rural states would voluntarily relinquish more of their power to make the system more “fair” so a majority could actually govern. It takes two-thirds of states to call for a constitutional convention (34 states). Twenty-eight states have already called for such a convention. Since most states represent rural populations, a constitutional convention would likely rewrite the constitution to give rural states even more power, furthering the tyranny of the minority.

Gerrymandering is the other aspect of the tyranny of the minority. Gerrymandering though is a bit different. It empowers pluralities rather than minorities within a state. For example, Texas is a conservative state in general. By creating highly partisan voting districts, Texas has created districts where a plurality of conservatives in the district are more conservative than normal, and minority districts are more liberal than normal.

Those most affected by gerrymandering are not necessarily minorities, although onerous voter ID laws certainly depress minority participation in elections. As I pointed out before, moderates are the biggest losers in gerrymandered states.

The impact of gerrymandering is easy to see in Congress but also in state legislatures. It is feeding partisanship in these chambers because there are so few moderates to form a sensible center, making compromise increasingly unlikely. This more than anything else probably explains why only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. Essentially we’ve “elected” legislators that vote against the interests of a majority of their citizens. Curiously, it is this frustration at not being heard that fed the rise of Donald Trump. Citizens seem to want someone to change the status quo and shake things up. Trump is certainly making waves, but he cannot change these fundamental mistakes in our system of government.

And that’s what they amount to: mistakes. If the decks were not already stacked against the majority, the Electoral College makes it worse, leading to presidents who lose the popular vote by three million votes (Trump).

The irony of all this is that those calling for a constitutional convention amount to rural states that want more power. They already have the nation by its scrotum. They don’t have complete control. The president is generally elected by a majority of its citizens, but recent elections in 2000 and 2016 suggest an emerging trend of presidents losing the popular vote but still winning the election.

Some states like Texas sound like they want to secede from the Union. In reality rural and southern states have it good. Overall they consume more federal revenue than they contribute, a product of many decades of these states having disproportionate power in Congress. Secession would actually be a huge problem for them, as they would have to live within their own means. Right now red states are sucking blue states for their wealth and prosperity.

If states are going to secede, logically it should be blue states with large populations and thriving economies, states like California and New York. A couple red and purple states also meet these criteria. Texas has a large population and is thriving. Florida and Virginia also likely apply. More minor states like New Jersey, Ohio and Minnesota would also meet these criteria. I do have to wonder how long supposedly sovereign states like California will put up with this system where they are handicapped and bled dry, with much of their wealth going to other less prosperous states.

Imagine if states like California and New York when on strike, refusing to pay federal taxes until the system is fairer to the majority. Maybe something would change, but most likely it would cause massive national disharmony. And that’s the real problem here: our constitutional framework largely keeps the majority from wielding its clout. That’s why 59 people died and over were 500 injured in Las Vegas by a crazed shooter on the 38th floor of a hotel and nothing will change: because the minority has the nation by the scrotum.

You have to look hard for signs of hope. The Supreme Court is considering a case of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. In the past the court has been hands-off. Is the gerrymandering in Wisconsin so egregious that they will take action? If they do (and it’s unlikely) it will be around the edges of the problem. If political gerrymandering can be ruled unconstitutional then there is hope that at least in the House and in state assemblies will generally represent their constituents again.

What the op-ed suggested to me is that as bad as our dysfunctional government is at the moment, it’s likely to get a lot worse. The tensions are there for a lot more Las Vegas-like shootings. It’s hard to see but the fabric of our democracy is shredding. Moreover there are few ways we can come together and solve the problem because there are so few people willing to admit there is even a problem, or that it’s in the interest of the minority to cede some of its power to the majority.

If civil war is in our future, it might well come from blue states. They, not red states, are the ones getting shafted.

 
The Thinker

Dear Supreme Court: please free our political moderates

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on whether Wisconsin’s state assembly map constitutes an illegal partisan gerrymander. The court has never struck down a voting district map based solely on its political boundaries, so it’s unwise for those who would like to see fairer voting districts to get their expectations up.

I’m not enough of a lawyer (not being one at all) to understand the legal issues, other than the constitution specifically delegates voting criteria to the states. The Voting Rights Act requires that certain criteria (like race-based criteria) cannot be used in drawing maps. This hasn’t kept states from doing this anyhow. In most cases courts strike down these maps after an election where they are used to partisan advantage. New districts are drawn that are generally still illegal, so the cycle seems to continue forever and never really gets settled. At least that’s been the case since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that certain predominantly southern states no longer need to have their voting maps cleared in advance.

State assembly maps are where the real power is, because generally they draw the political boundaries for both state and federal voting districts. Republicans used this to great effect after the 2010 election when they won Congress and state houses. Voting districts were required to be redrawn based on the 2010 census so Republicans used it to lock in their power at least through 2020. Quite frankly, this has a lot to do with the mess we are in at the moment. These highly partisan voting maps as well as state voting restrictions that don’t pass the smell test have given Republicans enormous political clout that far overstates their power if voting districts were created fairly and impartially.

Pretty much everyone agrees that our politics are a huge mess. This is a direct result of extreme gerrymandering. I sure hope the court finds political gerrymandering illegal, but most likely they will not. I hope this not just because I necessarily am pining for more Democrats in office. I say this because to end our political mess we need lots of moderates in office. I can’t see any way to bring moderates back into politics unless we end political gerrymandering.

Democrats may be in the minority in Congress, but it’s becoming even harder to find any moderates left in Congress. Moderates of both parties used to form the political center. Their presence allowed government to function because they facilitated political compromise. These days significant change is only possible if one party controls both Congress and the White House. Usually when that happens you get laws that only appeal to the rabid wings of the party. Trumpcare is liked by only 16% of Americans, with even only 34% of Republicans liking it, but that doesn’t mean that Congress won’t pass it anyhow.

If it happens it will be a law of immense cruelty. Make no mistake: the Senate’s current version of the bill has nothing to do with improving health care. That’s merely a smokescreen. It has two principle purposes. The first is to give tax cuts to the wealthy. Republicans see it as restoring tax rates for the wealthy to what they were before the Affordable Care Act. The second is to end Medicaid as an open-ended entitlement program. For more than fifty years it has set a floor that no citizen could sink beneath. By limiting federal contributions, it encourages states to race toward the bottom: limiting enrollment and cutting benefits. In effect, the poor will simply get poorer, making the wealth gap even worse than it is now. The effect is pretty obvious: lots of people are going to die prematurely and painfully. It’s an outcome that only the Marquis de Sade and today’s Republicans can love.

All this is from a supposedly “pro-life” party. It’s obviously quite the opposite. I’ve discussed these gaping inconsistencies in many other posts, so I won’t revisit them here. What I will note is that whether it is Republicans who want to kill off their poor constituents because they don’t believe the rich should help subsidize their health, or whether it’s far left partisan Democrats who won’t accept anything less than single-payer health insurance, ideally at government-run hospitals and healthcare centers like the Veterans Administration, these are solutions favored by a fringe. Ask your typical man or woman in the street if they favor either of these approaches and you are likely to get a resounding “No!”

But you don’t see many of these people in Congress because gerrymandering conspires to leave them out. That’s the real crime of gerrymandering: trying to force the government to be run by the extreme partisans when it needs the consent of the governed, which includes a lot of moderates. Gerrymandering extends political dysfunction, empowers people that hate their own government, fosters conflict and may pave the way toward a new civil war.

All of this is preventable if government can become of, by and for the people again. With moderates forming about 35% of the population, but likely represented by no more than 10% of legislators their interests are simply not getting considered. This is political disenfranchisement on a massive scale. Blacks may be disproportionately under represented, but at least these highly-partisan voting maps gives them some diluted representation. Moderates though have little to no representation. Unless the Supreme Court steps up and declares political gerrymandering unconstitutional or (much more unlikely) Congress sees the light and acts against their own partisan interests to enact such a law, it’s not hard to predict that our government will become more detached from its citizens, ultimately representing mostly a highly partisan few. That’s a recipe for national disorder that only the Kremlin would approve because it is simply not democratic. It’s not even republican.

So the Supreme Court could become the savior of our democracy if they find the legal standing or discipline to do so in their upcoming decision. If there was ever a reason for Americans to pray, praying the Supreme Court sees the light on this seems a priority for religious Americans of all types.

 
The Thinker

The southern strategy bites back

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote that Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party permanently. In the past the establishment elite controlled the party. Unfortunately well-moneyed Republicans were relatively few in number. They had to find votes somewhere so they adopted a “southern strategy” that pandered to the fears and prejudices of those principally in the south. This included crass appeals to classists, racists, fundamentalist Christians and to those who wished for things to be the way they were in the 1950s, you know, when non-whites knew their place.

It worked quite well. Essentially the Republicans picked up formerly white southern Democrats when Democrats (some say unwisely) moved toward being more inclusive instead of the party of the white working class. Starting with Richard Nixon, Republicans realized that catering to people’s prejudices was a reliable vote getter. Republicans stoked then exploited these class divisions and anxieties so well that today the south and much of the non-coastal west is now a deep shade of red. Robinson said that Trump’s genius was to call to task Republicans because they didn’t follow through on their promises to this new base, actions like sending undocumented immigrants home. He said that Trump has fundamentally changed the party, wresting control from its establishment and making it explicitly a party centered on addressing these fears rather than merely pandering to them.

It used to be that in the Republican Party the tiger controlled its tail. The tail (the Tea Party, racists and Christian fundamentalists) now appears to control the party. We’ll find out for sure if Trump wins his party’s nomination. Even if Trump somehow slips, anyone who takes his place will have to sound a lot like him, which is why Ted Cruz won’t say anything bad about Trump while echoing most of his talking points. Counterproductively, the remaining Republican candidates are busy criticizing each other instead of focusing on Trump, at best a pennywise but pound-foolish strategy.

The Republican Party is thus on the cusp of becoming an officially anti-democratic party. It’s clear this is where they’ve been heading for a long time given their hostility toward the poor made manifest in egregious gerrymandering and increasingly odious voting restrictions. It’s like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Republicans have decided they are the pigs. What Republicans don’t want to admit is that any control they get must be tenuous at best, as the nation’s changing demographics will eventually overwhelm them. They already recognize their reality by creating egregious voter restriction laws. These stack the deck in their favor but they cannot last forever.

Trump’s policies are popular with his supporters because he is proposing actions that explicitly redress these problems. He wants to deport the undocumented and cut off a path to citizenship for those here legally. Do this and you can at least push off the date of white disempowerment. When Trump proposes a wall along our border with Mexico, what his supporters hear is not that it will deter the undocumented from coming into the United States, but that it is a concrete step toward moving us back to the 1950s when they were in charge and minorities knew their place.

An explicitly anti-democratic party should be very scary to the rest of us. It suggests that Republicans want a radical change to our constitutional government. Trump’s words at least suggest he plans to govern by fiat if he cannot get his way.

It’s understandable that many voters are frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. I am one of them. They want to elect someone that can end it. By supporting someone who will use non-constitutional means though, they tacitly are saying that this is the only way things can change. If elected, Trump’s methods appear to be to take action unlawfully and unilaterally if necessary. He can say that he ran on this promise, voters voted him in anyhow and thus he has their sanction. However, the problem of Washington gridlock has everything to do with excessive gerrymandering that Republicans spent decades working on to garner disproportionate political power. Gerrymandering gives power to the extremes and disempowers the middle.

Curiously many of Trump’s political supporters are not new Republicans but frustrated disempowered people in the middle who see him as their savior. You can see this because some of Trump’s policies are not traditionally conservative at all. His supporters are less concerned with whether the policies are conservative but whether he can make government function for the people again. They see Trump as a man of practical action who by using the force of personality and the presidency will untangle this Gordian knot. For decades the disenfranchised white working class has propped up the Republican Party’s power, with little to show for the support they were given. This gave an opening for the daring (Trump) to exploit.

I contend that what really irks Trump supporters are not the loss of white political power, but their ability to influence politicians to work for the middle class, as evidenced by their declining wages and more problematic standard of living. As Jimmy Carter has pointed out, we effectively live in an oligarchy now. The Republican Party is the champion of the oligarchy. And the oligarchy wants a sense of stability that leaves them in charge. Then they can exploit government and the country for their benefit, which in recent decades has meant a decline in the standard of living for most of us by redistributing income to the rich.

Trump supporters are realizing that they have been had and their votes for Republicans have been counterproductive, but for many they still can’t vote for a Democrat because most Democrats don’t believe in the specialness of whites that Republicans have skillfully exploited. However, it’s why Bernie Sanders can appeal to many Trump supporters, and visa versa, by channeling their economic frustrations. Both are speaking to them in a language they understand. Trump though has chosen to pander to the white working class.

Both parties have exploited working whites for many decades. Whites perceive that Democrats favor minorities at their expense, which they attribute to erosion in their standard of living. They also perceive that Republicans pander to them for votes but give power to the oligarchy instead. They don’t realize that by uniting with many of those they instinctively revile that government could work for them, and in the process work for everyone else too.

To make that leap they must see behind the façade, which is that white Christians are somehow more special than everyone else. I expect the smarter Trump supporters will leach off toward supporting Bernie Sanders instead.

Trump is a showman and a fraud. Those who want the real deal though need to support someone whose entire career has been toward making the government represent the people. By raising the boats of the middle and lower classes, the anxiety about these others should ease.

 
The Thinker

The tyranny of the extremes

It’s sort of like President Bush’s approval ratings in 2007 and 2008. Every time you wondered if they could possibly get any lower, they dropped again. The same is true today with Congress. Its approval ratings are in the single digits, 9% to be exact, according to pollster PPP. They must have a sense of humor at PPP because they also asked the public the popularity about all sorts of things, to get a gauge on just how unpopular Congress is. Head lice are 48% more popular than Congress. A colonoscopy, which I have to endure in February, is 27% more popular than Congress. Even cockroaches edge out Congress by 2%. The good news is that Congress is 35% more popular than North Korea, and 39% more popular than meth labs.

This is particularly amazing because most Americans simply tune out Congress. Most have no idea who their representative is in Congress, which is not too surprising since in most election years less than fifty percent of voters bother to vote. Heck, most Americans are so geographically impaired they cannot find France on a globe or can state with reasonable certainty what states border their own state. In fact, most Americans slept through their civics classes. It’s amazing they know what Congress is. And yet even institutions like Congress can get attention by the public. It happens when either they do things really right or really wrong. Americans are almost unanimous: Congress is not doing its job properly. Right now, it appears we could fire everyone but Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden. They were the two that brokered the latest “fiscal cliff” legislation, which really didn’t solve any fundamental problems, but did allow us to put it off a couple of more months. They were the only two interested in seriously negotiating.

And yet we just had an election in which 91% of incumbents who chose to run for reelection won. How is it possible then that only 9% of Americans approve of Congress? There are lots of reasons but it amounts to states deciding to create congressional districts that are highly partisan. The result is that the legislator is likely to be highly partisan, which means they are either very right wing or very left wing. The true endangered species in the House is the moderate.

So, if you are a moderate and have this notion that maybe Congress should meet in the middle somewhere, unless you live in California you are out of luck. California is the exception this year. Its state legislature decided that its congressional districts would be drawn in a non-partisan fashion. The result has been interesting to watch. While the state traditionally leans Democratic, there have been a number of very close races between Republican and Democratic candidates. This happens when the votes of moderates can count proportionately. It allows changes in demographics to be expressed in the state’s congressional representatives. More typical is states like Pennsylvania, which voted 52 percent for President Obama state-wide, and yet only seven of its 18 congressional representatives are Democratic. This is because Republicans control the state government, and drew highly partisan districts that favored Republicans and marginalized Democrats.

In short, at least in the House of Representatives legislators simply are not representative of the population of the state at large, and thus the real will of the people is not being expressed. If the House of Representatives were functioning the way it should, it would normally mirror results in the presidential race. In short, the House would generally be closely divided. It is likely that if congressional districts were not drawn in a partisan manner (gerrymandered) it would probably now have a narrow Democratic majority. In addition, the House would likely be far less polarized. There would probably only be a handful of representatives with Tea Party leanings. The bulk of legislators would be political moderates, and they’d be quite comfortable with the idea of compromise or voting based on consensus. Necessary legislation would get passed. Congress’s approval ratings would probably be above fifty percent.

The real tragedy with gerrymandering is that no one wins unless one party controls all branches of Congress and the White House. That situation is unnatural and when it occurs the dominant political party will tend to fracture. This is what happened when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House between 2009 and 2010. When you elect extremes and they control different houses of Congress, you get Congress with nine percent approval ratings. Extreme liberals find no reason to find common ground with tea partiers. And tea partiers, who vowed never to raise a tax rate, find no reason to find common ground with liberals. Moreover, since everyone is wedded to his or her own ideology, no one will budge. Dr. Seuss mirrored our present Congress is his story on the Zax.

I am a liberal that frequents the liberal blog DailyKos. There are constant petitions to tell Congress or the Obama Administration not to compromise on anything. This includes changing Social Security benefits or the retirement age, or any changes to Medicare. Sometimes I sign these petitions and sometimes I don’t. I agree that Social Security is solvent, so it doesn’t need major changes. The same cannot be said for Medicare. It needs major reforms and is the major reason we even have a budget crisis. Something has to change with Medicare. I don’t sign these petitions, not because I don’t want seniors to have health care, but because some compromise is absolutely necessary. It must be fixed even if the fix is painful, providing both sides give a little. This game cannot be won if no one refuses to budge. Otherwise the best result will be more debt than the country can afford and overpriced care. How is this being a good steward of the nation?

What can be done to get a functional Congress again? Unfortunately, this is one of these problems with no easy solution. It’s easy to say that states should create congressional districts that are non-partisan, but it appears it cannot be required through federal legislation. At the federal level, it should require a constitutional amendment, which means you would need to convince two thirds of a highly partisan Congress to vote to sponsor this legislation. That won’t happen. The other process, never tried, is for two thirds of the states to call a constitutional convention, draft the amendment and then get three quarters of the states agree on it.

Of course each state legislature on its own could do what California did, but they won’t because they are looking at their parochial interests, not the national interest. One creative solution I have heard would be for two states that historically are of different political stripes and have similar number of representatives in Congress to each pass laws saying that the districts in their state would be nonpartisan if the other state agreed to the same deal. That way one state does not “lose” because another state refuses to create nonpartisan districts.

Regardless, it looks like nine percent Congressional approval ratings are likely to endure for quite a while, unless disgust at Congress becomes so visceral that citizens protest en masse at their state capitals when their legislature is in session. Which means, as I said some time ago, that more national dysfunction lies dead ahead.

 

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