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Crossing Lines in California

By David S. Broder
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A19

SACRAMENTO -- The hardest challenge in the state capital these days is to locate anyone who will defend the way California has drawn its legislative and congressional district lines in the past decade.

In this the largest and most influential of the 50 states, there are 173 major political subdivisions: 80 seats in the state Assembly, 40 in the state Senate and 53 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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In 2002 exactly three of them changed parties. In 2004 none did.

This Soviet-style conformity was no accident. It was the result of a carefully negotiated deal between congressional Republicans and the legislature's Democrats to guarantee each side against any political losses.

Similar deals have been cut in many other states, which is one reason the House, which was designed by the Constitution to be the most sensitive barometer of short-term changes in the country's political climate, now has become the most rigid and inelastic part of the federal government.

Over the past three national elections, those of 2000, 2002 and 2004, when control of the White House and the Senate changed hands and the nation was treated to the spectacle of dramatically close national and statewide races between two highly motivated and mobilized political parties, the House has never budged. In the three election cycles, a grand total of 21 House incumbents were defeated. Most of the others were effectively unchallenged, vastly outspending their opponents and swamping them at the polls.

But now pacesetter California may be ready to change the pattern. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has thrown his support behind a move to shift control of the line-drawing from the legislature to a panel of retired judges.

On a visit here last week, I was surprised to find that -- unlike his other "structural reforms," involving the state budget process, pensions and education -- almost no one in the capitol building wanted to challenge the rationale behind the governor's move.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, perhaps the sharpest of Schwarzenegger's partisan critics, told Post reporter Dan Balz and me, "It is not in the best interests of democracy to have legislators drawing their own districts. We have to move [that power] to some neutral party."

Nuñez said he is opposed to Schwarzenegger's plan only because it calls for redistricting before the next census, in 2010, measures the changes in California's population. Schwarzenegger originally hoped that new lines could be drawn for 2006, but he now concedes that if that is impractical, it should be "as soon as possible," meaning probably 2008.

Despite the remarkable silence of the opposition, the Schwarzenegger plan could still fail. Most of the Republicans in the House delegation have urged the governor to abandon the idea because they are comfortable with their current safe seats and their House seniority. At a meeting in Washington, they told him that their powerful committee chairmanships were assets to the state and worth protecting. He told them to take a hike, but it remains to be seen if the public is as stirred by the issue as Schwarzenegger is. The first polls on an initiative to shift the line-drawing to judges showed only lukewarm support, and similar efforts sponsored by Republicans have failed in this Democratic state.

But no governor has campaigned on the issue as Schwarzenegger will. He is convinced that the districting deal has created the polarized legislature and made compromise on budgetary and governance issues all but impossible. Each party now plays only to its hard-core supporters, and the pragmatic center goes unrepresented.

The same thing has happened, of course, to the House of Representatives -- and for the same reason. Because the only threat most incumbents have to worry about is a possible challenge in a primary, they heed the importunings of any interest group that can make trouble for their renomination. That heightens the power of hard-core constituencies with uncompromising views.

Changing the way districts are drawn will not completely solve that problem. Because Democrats and Republicans now often live in separate areas -- urban or rural -- there is only so much "blending" that a neutral redistricting plan can accomplish. But at least at the margins, creating more competitive districts would probably help re-create a moderate center in Congress and the state legislatures.

When it happens, a shift by California to a nonpartisan commission on redistricting would lend powerful impetus to such an effort.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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