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November 4, 2004

Scandal in the House of Representatives

This Washington Post editorial examines the scandal that is the self-perpetuating nature of the House of Representatives:

Out of 435 House races, incumbents lost only seven -- an even more impressive survival rate than that of two years ago, when eight incumbents were defeated. In nearly all House races, moreover, there was no serious doubt about the outcome: 95 percent of races were decided by a margin of more than 10 percent, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, and an astonishing 83 percent were decided in 20-point-plus landslides.

How has this happened? Just take a look at the way in which we allow our Congressional districts to be established:

The main cause of the incumbents' success is the country's scandalous system for designing voter districts. Instead of entrusting the design to nonpartisan technocrats, the U.S. system entrusts it to state legislatures, allowing the majority party to promote partisan ends. The partisans feed demographic and polling data into their computers and come up with district boundaries that give their sides as many safe seats as possible. Because this process involves crowding opposition voters into a handful of opposition districts, it creates safe seats for both parties and an incentive for incumbents on both sides not to rock the boat.

And who has been at the forefront of this wrangling of Congressional districts? Of course, Tom DeLay and his friends:

The darkest wizardry occurred in Texas. There, the state Republican Party redrew the districts of five white Democrats, hoping to unseat all of them so that the Democrats would become identified as the party of minorities. The plan succeeded in four cases (outside Texas, a grand total of three incumbents were defeated anywhere). Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a long-serving conservative Democrat who had been forced to run in a Republican-leaning district against a Republican incumbent, went down in defeat, as did three others who had pulled the Democratic caucus toward the center.

The Texas redistricting faces a court challenge. But whatever the legal outcome, it's clear that these schemes are an inversion of democracy: Politicians get to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Incumbent members of Congress face little threat of being unseated and so have little reason to be responsive to voters; their chief vulnerability lies in the threat of a primary, which encourages them to play to party activists.

The upshot of all of this is increased polarization in the political process:

[I]ndependent moderates are a shrinking force in the House of Representatives. In the 1970s, on the partisan roll calls, the average member backed the party position 65 percent of the time. In the 1980s, the average degree of partisan loyalty rose to 73 percent; in the 1990s, 81 percent; and in 2001-02 the partisanship index hit a remarkable 87 percent.

Quare: Is it time for judicial intervention over the legislative gerrymandering of Congressional districts?

Posted by Tom at November 4, 2004 6:07 AM |


As a policy matter, it would be nice. As a constitutional matter, I don't know enough to say the courts should be recognized to have that power.

Posted by: Dylan at November 4, 2004 10:12 AM

I'm not offering any comments on gerrymandering, but I just wanted to say the site is looking nice!

Posted by: richard at November 4, 2004 11:21 AM

Rich, thanks. That's a high compliment from one who actually understands this computer stuff!

Posted by: Tom K. at November 4, 2004 11:31 AM

I watched "from the inside" after the 1980 census. Very interesting, and even the lowly grass-roots of us felt we had a voice in the gerry-mandering process. And gerry-manering it is. By all means, protect the incumbant whatever his politics. Upside? The other party will do the same for you the next ten year census. Tom DeLay, if I'm reading the newspapers and blogs correctly, upset that apple cart in Texas by overturning the 2000 post-census redistricting and ordering a new 2002 redistricting.If I'm correct, I'd think not a good idea if the 2010 census puts the Dems in control of state politics. I expect comments and corrections if I've mis-read the situation in Texas.
If you allow me to stick around, sometime I'll explain the interest of a Washington coast deweller in Texas and this great blog. :>)

Posted by: MarchDancer at April 5, 2006 5:52 PM

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