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Scandal in the House

Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page A24

THE REPUBLICANS picked up at least two extra seats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday; two runoffs in Louisiana may expand their majority further. But this election, like all recent House elections, was most notable for what did not change. Out of 435 House races, incumbents lost only seven -- an even more impressive survival rate than that of two years ago, when eight incumbents were defeated. In nearly all House races, moreover, there was no serious doubt about the outcome: 95 percent of races were decided by a margin of more than 10 percent, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, and an astonishing 83 percent were decided in 20-point-plus landslides.

The main cause of the incumbents' success is the country's scandalous system for designing voter districts. Instead of entrusting the design to nonpartisan technocrats, the U.S. system entrusts it to state legislatures, allowing the majority party to promote partisan ends. The partisans feed demographic and polling data into their computers and come up with district boundaries that give their sides as many safe seats as possible. Because this process involves crowding opposition voters into a handful of opposition districts, it creates safe seats for both parties and an incentive for incumbents on both sides not to rock the boat. But in some states the majority party gerrymanders districts to create magical results. Pennsylvania's 19 districts, carved out by the Republican-controlled legislature, elected 12 Republicans on Tuesday -- even though Sen. John F. Kerry carried the state by more than 100,000 votes.

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The darkest wizardry occurred in Texas. There, the state Republican Party redrew the districts of five white Democrats, hoping to unseat all of them so that the Democrats would become identified as the party of minorities. The plan succeeded in four cases (outside Texas, a grand total of three incumbents were defeated anywhere). Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a long-serving conservative Democrat who had been forced to run in a Republican-leaning district against a Republican incumbent, went down in defeat, as did three others who had pulled the Democratic caucus toward the center.

The Texas redistricting faces a court challenge. But whatever the legal outcome, it's clear that these schemes are an inversion of democracy: Politicians get to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Incumbent members of Congress face little threat of being unseated and so have little reason to be responsive to voters; their chief vulnerability lies in the threat of a primary, which encourages them to play to party activists. As The Post's David S. Broder has written, the upshot is that independent moderates are a shrinking force in the House of Representatives. In the 1970s, on the partisan roll calls, the average member backed the party position 65 percent of the time. In the 1980s, the average degree of partisan loyalty rose to 73 percent; in the 1990s, 81 percent; and in 2001-02 the partisanship index hit a remarkable 87 percent.

If the nation is going to work toward the bipartisan civility that President Bush and Mr. Kerry invoked yesterday, a tough look at redistricting needs to be part of the effort.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company