Friday, June 30, 2006
Flying Saucers: If the Founders got together for a reunion this July 4, they'd have much to celebrate. Trading King George III for George Washington turned out to be the greatest straight player swap of all time. Bailing on the British Empire in favor of the American experiment showed investment foresight worthy of Warren Buffett. The Declaration of Independence changed the world, and even if the current administration sometimes forgets it exists, the Constitution is still going strong, too.
But if the Founders could do it all over again, might they look at the House of Representatives today and wonder, "What were we thinking?"
The Founders had high hopes for the House's contribution to democracy. They made House members stand for election every two years so they would reflect popular opinion. Senators were given the luxury of six-year terms so they could deliberate with less eye to electoral whim. The Senate was the saucer to cool the House's coffee.
For better or worse, that's more or less how Congress behaved for the first couple centuries. Fifty years ago, the biggest obstacle to social and political progress in America was the U.S. Senate. Back when it took 67 votes to break a filibuster, the Senate was less the saucer than the little round hole in the Starbucks trash bin where the House's coffee was thrown out.
In the last decade or two, however, the House and Senate have reversed roles. Because Senators are elected statewide and Senate rules force members to work out their differences, the Senate tends to more accurately reflect the broader public's view. Because House members are elected in increasingly polarized districts and House rules forbid members from working out their differences, the House has become the world's greatest deliberative trash bin.
Red Card: To make matters worse, in recent years, the political ethos of the House has infected the rest of the body politic. Take-no-prisoners politics began wrecking the House in the late '80s. It sank to unimaginable depths with impeachment in the late '90s and evolved into a brass-knuckled shakedown under Tom DeLay in the early '00s. When House members graduated to the Senate, some of them brought its harsh partisan instincts to the upper chamber.
In the House, DeLay launched an unprecedented and successful effort to redraw congressional districts year after year to maximize partisan advantage. If DeLay had gone on to the Senate, he no doubt would have tried to rewrite state boundaries every few years to achieve the highest possible number of red states.
The Supreme Court's refusal this week to overturn the DeLay gerrymander in Texas suggests that another firewall has fallen. From now on, both parties will feel compelled to take the same politics that has brought down the House to every state capital in America. Instead of doing the job people elected them to do, state legislators will spend all their time fighting over how to write safe congressional districts so that members of Congress don't have to do the job people elect them to do.
Redistricting was at the root of DeLay's downfall, and may well be at the root of Washington's as well. In recent years, redistricting has made districts more polarized, homogeneous, and friendly to entrenched incumbents. Competitive districts in which incumbents actually have to earn re-election are becoming an endangered species.