Politics Magazine

Some Modest Proposals in Re Political Reform

Posted on the 21 August 2011 by Erictheblue

The other day I was sipping a latte while listening to NPR and wishing I could afford a Prius, simultaneously worrying about the Tea-Party drift of affairs in the land and whether we might be running low on brie in the upstairs fridge, when a story came on about the super-sized significance of Iowa and New Hampshire in presidential politics.  Of course the opinions of various people were quoted, mainly "experts" but including also random attendees of the Iowa state fair.  I liked best, by a long way, the remarks of a fair-goer who said, Yes, it is ridiculous that Iowans should be able to decide so long before the general election who might be fit for the presidency and who definitely isn't, especially since it's clear that the collective judgment of the most "engaged" Iowa Republicans on these questions is cloudy (Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul together got 56% of all votes in the Ames Straw Poll) but that's far from the only ridiculous thing in sight.  And he ticked off the items.   The electoral college.  Michele Bachmann.  The Senate filibuster.  Rick Perry.  The influence of corporate money.  Michele Bachmann.  The mad over-representation of small states (and, thus, of rural and small-town white Americans) in the Senate.  The decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United.  Rick Perry. That Lincoln did not have the good sense to let the South go.  And so on.  I'm paraphrasing loosely, filling in gaps in my memory with things this  sensible Iowan would surely agree with. 

He might have added to his list safe congressional districts.  How is it that, in a supposedly "fifty-fifty" country, there are so few competetive elections for US House?  The result is a Congress full of long-serving ideologues who could not possibly lose an election if they succeeded in causing the country to default on its debt.  I guess people like me, who vote reflexively for Democrats and who would not live more than five blocks from a coffeeshop or five miles from a skyscraper, are part of the problem.  We make it easy for the enemy to cordon us off in a single congressional district just by drawing a circle through the inner-ring suburbs of Minneapolis.  Then they can own the rest.  Obviously my congressman, Keith Ellison, is not going to compromise with Michele Bachmann.  What would that even look like?  Both voted against the debt ceiling compromise, one because it gave away the store to Republicans and the other because it didn't give Republicans enough.

The political boundaries and demographics of the Twin Cities area are reproduced in urban centers around the country and are a leading cause, I think, of our troubles.  Ellison regularly gets 70% of the vote.  In the district just to the east, where there is another circle drawn around the city of St. Paul, another liberal Democrat, Betty McCollum, gets two-thirds of the vote.  There are three other districts that take up the suburbs and all have been represented since time immemorial by Republicans.  The region as a whole is reliably Democratic.  In the last three presidential elections, for example, the Democrat's share of the vote in the five-district area has never been below 51%, and has averaged 53%.  Yet Republicans' share of the congressional representation has held eternally constant at 60%.  We have two 67% Democratic districts and three 57% Republican ones.  When these five representatives are "responsive" to their constituents, and the pattern is repeated across the more populated states, you have in place the basic ingredients for the wreck that is the US Congress, especially when you add in the absurdly undemocratic rules requiring a supermajority to accomplish anything in the Senate. 

It wouldn't have to be exactly like this.  Alexander Hamilton, a guy in Iowa, and I agree it's ridiculous that each state, no matter how large or small, gets two senators.  We're stuck with that, but the Senate rules are just the Senate rules: they could be changed.  When you put together the need for a supermajority with the fact that all states have two senators, the potential exists for senators representing 12% of the population thwarting the will of the 88% that can be represented by as few as 59 of the 100 senators. 

Regarding the one-sided congressional districts: that's not necessary, either.  Instead of rings, the districts could be shaped like pieces of pie narrowing as they converged on the urban center.  If that were the case with the five districts in the Twin Cities metro area, there is probably not a single current representative who could win in any of them.  Bachmann would be out for sure.  Moderate Republicans could be competetive, but it's possible all five districts would often be represented by standard-issue Democrats.  Which is why it won't happen.

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