This is the only way to fix Congress.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 17 2006 12:39 PM

The Gerrymander That Ate America

Here's the only way to make House races competitive again.

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But there is a perfect system out there. Sam Hirsch, a D.C. election lawyer who represents lots of Democrats, has drafted a state constitutional amendment, loosely modeled on the New Jersey system, that would keep politicians involved in redistricting while that ensuring the final map would reflect prevailing political opinion. Under Hirsch's plan, the tie-breaking chairman would be almost a redistricting dictator. He would have more votes than all the other members combined, which would block the kind of bipartisan gerrymander that happened in New Jersey. At the same time it would keep politicians involved in the process, allowing them to provide expertise about campaigning and the electoral nature of individual districts.

This process would produce at least two immediate results: It would create more seats with competitive general-election contests, and it would give aspiring politicians an incentive to move a little closer to the political center. That might foster a more meaningful dialogue on Capitol Hill, by reducing the echo-chamber effect that now exists between House members and their like-minded constituents in their Republican- or Democratic-leaning seats.

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It's unlikely that members of Congress will push for redistricting reform, because they're the people who benefit the most from the status quo. Rep. John Tanner, a centrist Democrat from Tennessee, introduced legislation nearly a year ago that would establish independent redistricting commissions with independent tiebreakers. It has 46 co-sponsors at the moment, only two of whom are Republican. The companion bill in the Senate has only one sponsor, its author, Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

Unfortunately for Tanner and Hirsch, though many Americans have become increasingly frustrated with Congress, as shown by recent polls, they have yet to recognize how election-proof districts have made lawmakers less accountable to voters and more inclined to fight petty partisan battles. The defeat of the California and Ohio redistricting measures prove how easy it is for entrenched political interests to block change. The Supreme Court is also unlikely to come to the aid of the reformers. Even if it does throw out DeLay's Texas House map, it is likely to issue the narrowest possible ruling, one that leaves plenty of room for political and partisan redistricting. Americans will be left with the same dismal system, which they will keep until they realize that the problem in Congress isn't just the politicians, but also the process that put them in office.

Juliet Eilperin, national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.

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