Politicians say they care about policy, but they prove over and over again that protecting their own jobs and the jobs of their friends takes top priority. Take the ridiculous spat this spring in Texas where 53 rebel Democrats in the Texas state house, egged on by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, secretly left the state in a bus to deprive the legislature of a quorum. Their walkout, which stalled dozens of important bills, was to prevent voting on a new congressional redistricting map that benefited Republicans. The Republican House Speaker threatened to have them arrested and compelled to attend the legislative session.
The Republican redistricting plan itself was the work of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, still angry over a 1991 Democratic gerrymander of Texas congressional seats that has forestalled GOP gains in President George W. Bush’s increasingly conservative home state. When the next redistricting rolled around in a decade later, Republicans and Democrats each controlled a house of the Texas legislature and the whole process wound up in court. There a state judge issued a competitive plan that discomfited incumbents and elicited howls of outrage from Rep. Martin Frost, former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. After a week’s worth of consultations with leading politicians, the judge — a Democrat — suddenly changed his mind and released an incumbent protection plan that left the state without a single competitive House race in last year’s election. Indeed, six of the 28 incumbents seeking re-election last year in Texas had no major-party competition at all.
The result in 2002 was that Republicans in Texas won 57 percent of the congressional vote, but wound up with less than half the seats — 15 out of 32. Majority Leader DeLay, still smarting from what he considered an outrageous flip-flop by the Democratic judge, plotted to have the new legislature — with both houses now controlled by Republicans — come back this year with a gerrymander largely designed by him. The result would be to increase GOP strength in the Texas delegation to at least 20 out of 32 seats, helping ensure continued GOP control of the U.S. House for some time to come. Hence the Democratic bus ride to prevent a vote. The mess may not be resolved until a special session this summer (if then).
Incumbent-protection schemes are one of the most significant remaining barriers to voters’ ability to express their preferences adequately in elections. The outcome for almost all U.S. House races last year was preordained by devices such as gerrymandering, made easier than ever by computer mapping software that allows both parties to manipulate district lines until they have the perfect political DNA to ensure the re-election of incumbents. Senate races remain more competitive because no one has yet figured out a way to gerrymander a state’s boundaries. But the House — the body intended by the founders to be closest to the people — has become an elite preserve for incumbents who have walled themselves off from competition.
Disenfranchising voters became a bipartisan exercise last year, when the new census mandated redistricting. If Democrats moan that they have little chance of taking back the House in the next election, they can in large part blame themselves for allowing their incumbents to greedily build political castles at the expense of more competitive districts that would have left House control more in doubt.
Consider what happened in California, where Democrats controlled the redistricting process but nonetheless cut a sweetheart deal with Republican incumbents. That was the only way that Anglo Democrats such as Howard Berman and Henry Waxman could protect their increasingly Hispanic districts from primary challenges. The result is that only one of the state’s 53 seats was competitive last year, and that was only because scandal-tarred Rep. Gary Condit had been defeated in a primary.
In Illinois, House Speaker Dennis Hastert struck a deal with Rep. William Lipinski, the senior Democrat in the state, to make all of the state’s 19 districts safe for existing incumbents. Only one race this year is competitive, and that’s only because the state is losing a seat in redistricting and two incumbents have been thrown together in a musical -chairs contest.
The effect of all this bipartisan backscratching is to create a Congress in which members increasingly feel that they don’t have to listen to the folks back home. In Illinois, GOP Rep. Tim Johnson won his first election in 2000, with 53 percent of the vote. But in 2002, a bipartisan gerrymander turned his district into a bizarre, 100-mile long fishhook stretching along the Indiana border, connecting him with more Republican voters. The results were predictable. Instead of seeking a rematch, his former opponent dropped out as soon as the new lines were announced. And Rep. Johnson, secure enough in his incumbency, announced that his own pledge to limit himself to three terms in office is no longer valid.
Such moves will surely increase voter apathy and cynicism, making low voter turnouts almost inevitable. Why vote if you already know who is going to win and there has been no effective campaign against the incumbent?
Nationwide, only 30 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives were even remotely competitive last year. More incumbents lost in the House than in the Senate, but only because five districts featured incumbent vs. incumbent matchups mandated shifting populations. Outside those races, the incumbent re-election rate against hit 98 percent.
All of this is not only bad for democracy, but also bad for political compromise. Districts with entrenched incumbents tend to elect members on the political extremes, with little incentive to modify their partisan positions. That will make it harder to reach sensible common ground on Social Security or Medicare reform that everyone agrees is necessary.
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t likely to get better anytime soon. With the exception of states such as Texas, where unusual circumstances apply, the nation is stuck with the gerrymandered districts now in place for the next ten years. But that shouldn’t stop people now from coming up with a better way. Iowa and Arizona had some of the most competitive House races in the last election, in large part because they have turned over redistricting to non-partisan commissions. Those bodies can have their own biases, but at least they can be forced to address considerations such as compactness and the need to keep communities together, which self-promoting legislatures routinely ignore. Perhaps more of the 24 states with the initiative process will consider similar reforms. You can bet such reforms won’t be pushed by state legislators without popular pressure. State lawmakers are happy with their own incumbent gerrymanders.
The Founding Fathers envisioned the House of Representatives to be the people’s chamber, the body most representative of popular concerns. Instead, it has become a House of Lords, insulated from competition and vigorous challenge. We have gone from voters choosing their representatives to representatives choosing their voters through the artful use of incumbent-protection software. Our democracy won’t be fully vibrant until we figure out a way to stop incumbents from fixing the elections in advance.