Monday, January 7, 2013

Partisan redistricting leads to gridlock

The ugly scenario of a deadlocked Congress such as voters saw in the recent "fiscal cliff" deadline or last year's debt limit conflagration is not likely to go away. America's political alliances have not changed that much; voters are closely divided between Republicans and Democrats and between conservatives and progressives with most voters identifying themselves as moderate. But the vituperative anger of political rhetoric has exploded in recent years.

Blame the anonymous Internet, where people can say anything with almost no consequences, or social media, where political myopia is encouraged and rewarded by like-minded followers and "friends." But also blame what has happened in Congress and state legislatures: the increasingly partisan gerrymandering of districts to protect the interests of the party in power.

In the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, the American people clearly wanted a compromise deal that would avert disastrous economic consequences. Business leaders wanted a deal, too, as evidenced by the lagging Wall Street numbers as the deal seemed iffy and the sudden jump in the Dow after a deal was announced. But most members of Congress had nothing to fear from an economic catastrophe because their constituents were not the wide middle of American political thought; their constituents were, thanks to partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, narrow special-interest adherents.

Repeatedly during the fiscal cliff talks, we were reminded that most Republican House members had more to fear from a Republican primary than from the general election. If members failed to follow the mandates of the party's right wing and the further-right demands of talk-show celebrities and campaign financiers, primary challengers would replace them.

The Constitution has always required redrawing of congressional districts after each decennial census, but only in the past generation has computer-aided mapping allowed state redistricting committees to parse districts down to the last individual voter. Computer power allows legislators to pack one district full of Republicans and an adjacent one full of Democrats, and that is exactly what has been done in most states. North Carolina's 13 districts provide a lesson in congressional partisanship. These districts are not compact; they are sprawling, wiggling along narrow isthmuses to link one partisan population center to another, spreading constituents along hundreds of miles and crossing cultural and economic interests in order to tie together political branches.

Blame both parties. When N.C. Democrats redistricted after the 1990 and 2000 censuses, they created Democratic districts that were immune to GOP threats. When Republicans redistricted after the 2010 census they exceeded the blatant partisanship of the Democrats and guaranteed their nine of the 13 congressional seats.

The result nationwide is a Congress that has more reason to follow party ideology and unity, less reason to follow constituents and virtually no reason to do what is best for the country as a whole. America is unlikely to outgrow its partisan gridlock until redistricting ruled by partisans in state legislatures is replaced by nonpartisan panels that draw districts based on common interests without regard to party alignments. Every state can change its redistricting model, but it must put national interest above partisan gamesmanship.

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