WASHINGTON — It’s become de rigueur to lament the rise of partisanship in Washington. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, gets a good deal of the blame in the press for the “strident tone” of the toxic gasses that emanate from Swamp City. In truth, DeLay is more a product of a partisan time than a cause. Folks looking to assign blame for the current tone should turn instead to computer-aided gerrymandering of congressional districts.
The 2002 midterm elections were described as “historic” and “an earthquake.” Republicans bucked past trends and gained seats in both chambers, wresting control of the Senate back from Jim Jeffords and the Democrats by defeating incumbents in Missouri and Georgia.
On another measure, 2002 was historic in how little ground it shook. On Election Day, only four House incumbents fell to challengers. Some incumbents (either on their way to jail or mysteriously involved with missing interns) lost in their primaries. In four cases, reapportionment caused incumbent-vs.-incumbent races.
But only four members were unseated in November by outside challengers. That’s quite an incumbent advantage.
THIS ABSURDLY HIGH, and growing, incumbent retention rate is a factor that must be considered whenever examining the dynamics of Washington. If anyone wonders why partisanship runs so high in our lower chamber, they ought to turn first to this fact: Almost every Congressman sits in a safe seat, meaning members are more beholden to their party leaders than to the voters.
The Constitution gave to state legislators the job of dividing up their states into congressional districts. Throughout our history, redistricting has been one of the ugliest and most cutthroat parts of American politics. Southern states famously “gerrymandered” districts to prevent blacks from being elected to Congress.
Today’s gerrymandering is not primarily for racial reasons, nor partisan ones. Gerrymandering is done with the end in mind of protecting the incumbents and making their reelections easy. With the science of modern electioneering, computers can dissect towns and streets by voter registration. So creating safe seats is not a matter of following the dotted lines.
New York in 2002 provides a great example. Upstate population loss meant the state was going from 31 House seats to 29. Republicans, in control of the state Senate and the governorship, simply could not get a plan past intransigent state Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, a Democrat. A federal judge stepped in, and broke the deadlock by drawing a map — one that would have created two districts where a Republican incumbent would face a Democratic incumbent, and in both cases on Republican turf.
This was a stroke of luck. It meant the GOP would be able to hold onto all 12 of its seats, while Democrats would lose two. But the map provided enough of a change in each district, that every incumbent in New York would need to work a little bit to keep his job. This simply wouldn’t do.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds, a New York congressman, walked into U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office and complained. The Speaker picked up the phone, called New York State Senate President Joe Bruno in Albany, and told him to make a map in which no Republicans would have to work hard to win in November.
THIS MEANT PACKING TWO Republicans into one district, and making them fight it out in the primary, which is exactly what Bruno did, and Silver was all too happy to comply. Democrats also had to pack two of their own into a single district.
In short, Denny Hastert had a chance to knock off two Democrats, and increase his majority in the House. His priority, however, was ensuring Tom Reynolds wouldn’t have to return to upstate New York to campaign. So he forwent the chance for GOP gain.
This year, fewer than 30 House races will be competitive, and no more than ten incumbents will be in real danger. This means that of the 434 current members of the House, only a handful are worried about what the voters might think of them.
If reelection doesn’t motivate the lawmakers, advancement will. Vote against Tom DeLay or Dennis Hastert on an important issue and there goes your chance to chair a sub-committee. Snub Nancy Pelosi and stand with the GOP, good luck getting a spot on appropriations any time soon. Want an office on the ground floor of Rayburn? Toe the party line.
From a perspective of enlightened self-interest, having friends on the other side of the aisle does almost no good. Sucking up to party leaders is about the only thing that matters in today’s lower chamber.