Gridlock in the Forecast

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Monday, August 18, 2008

PARTISANSHIP IS like the weather: Everybody complains, but no one does anything about it. But unlike bad weather, partisanship and the gridlock it helps bring to government could be reduced. The key is redistricting reform, an admittedly unsexy subject that nonetheless deserves more attention from Congress and the presidential candidates.

Gerrymandering of congressional districts is an old skill that has been perfected with the advent of computers. Technology allows the drawing of increasing numbers of increasingly safe House seats after each decennial census. The problem has been exacerbated by moves in several states -- most notoriously Texas -- to engage in mid-cycle redistricting. Safe districts tend to drive candidates to the extremes, since their biggest worries come from primary challengers, not the general election.

Hence, polarization and gridlock, since compromise and moderation can be hazardous to lawmakers' political health. Incumbents of both parties protect themselves. Even in turbulent 2006, only 14 percent of House seats were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points. As Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) explained in a speech on the House floor last month, "As a Democrat, it behooves me to give my next-door neighbor all my Republicans, and it behooves my next-door neighbor Republican to give me all of his or her Democrats, which means that both of us have a more secure seat and the voters are often completely left out of the mix."

The remedy would be to put redistricting in independent hands; to require that districts be drawn without regard to partisan concerns; and to prohibit redrawing between censuses. A dozen states have some form of nonpartisan commission or other process to draw district lines; nearly half ban mid-cycle redistricting.

But the problem is serious enough to justify federal action. In anticipation of the 2010 Census, a few thoughtful lawmakers -- Mr. Tanner, Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) -- have introduced measures to this end. The bills have gone exactly nowhere. A newly formed group, Americans for Redistricting Reform, has called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to schedule hearings. There's not a lot of incentive for elected officials to change rules rigged in their favor, but we hope that Ms. Pelosi and others will recognize that self-interest must give way.

It would be helpful if the presumptive presidential nominees -- one of whom will have to live with a polarized House--would push this issue. Both have spoken about the importance of redistricting reform; neither has been clear about whether federal legislation is warranted. "We need more competitive races. We need more moderation," Sen. John McCain said in supporting a failed 2005 ballot measure in California that would have put retired judges in charge of redistricting. "The fact of the matter is that we now have a system where, too often, our representatives are selecting their voters, as opposed to the voters selecting the representatives," Sen. Barack Obama told a Brookings Institution forum in 2006. "That is a situation that I think the American people should not accept." We couldn't agree more.


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