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Making Congress work again: Gerrymandering and the jungle

Published: October 22, 2010
Section: Opinions


During the past year, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings have dropped from their previous stratospheric heights to around 50 percent. While this is disappointing for the president, Congress would kill for an approval rating north of 30 percent. In fact, Americans are so disillusioned with the job that Congress is doing that nearly every poll over the past year has shown the Congress languishing with an approval rating around, and shockingly, sometimes below, 20 percent. Obviously Americans are angry with Congress and they are quite justified to feel this way. Both houses of the United States Congress are filled with a mix of politicians whose sense of entitlement, decisions and ideologies should make any sensible American’s skin crawl. However, the politicians themselves are only part of the problem. The bigger issue is that the system in which we elect members of Congress has two serious flaws: Gerrymandered congressional districts, and the party primary system.

When the founders of our country were designing the House of Representatives, they saw it as the people’s chamber. Since our country was founded, members of the House of Representatives have been elected through a direct election every two years. This is quite different than the process for electing senators, who are up for election every six years and until the 17th Amendment was enacted in 1913, were elected by state legislatures. Also, since members of the House represent far fewer people than senators do, and because they are up for reelection every two years, one would think they would spend time in their district to get to know the people they represent, even when an election isn’t a month away.

Instead, the practice of gerrymandering congressional districts has taken this need away as the politicians in question never have to fear a credible challenger. A gerrymandered congressional district is one that is drawn up, usually by a state legislature, in a manner that makes no geographic or demographic sense, but is done to ensure the reelection of incumbents of a certain party. A notorious example of this is Democrat Barney Frank here in Massachusetts, who has a congressional district drawn specifically to ensure his reelection. The fact that politicians have the ability to choose their voters should be especially offensive to every American, and the practice of gerrymandering has enabled the creation of career politicians in the House of Representatives who are accountable to no one.

While gerrymandered congressional districts are a problem, it is the party primary system that sends people to Congress who are idealogues who refuse to compromise and get things done. Under the current system, there is little to no incentive for most members of the House and Senate to work with the other party at all. At the slightest hint of bipartisan compromise, a partisan interest group can threaten a senator or representative with a primary challenge from someone who will toe the line on ideology. It is this system that gave us ideological extremist representatives like Alan Grayson and Jim DeMint. Both of these guys are partisan bomb throwers, who poison the atmosphere of Congress and distort the truth to achieve victory. Wacky fringe candidates for Senate have also been produced this year because of the party primary system. Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware are two of the most egregious examples.

The best way to end the grip that party activists and partisan interest groups have on members of Congress is to scrap the party system altogether and institute a “jungle primary system.” A jungle primary would put every candidate in the same primary together, regardless of party, and the top two vote getters, again regardless of party, would then face each other in the general election. Under this system, far more moderates would be elected and closed primaries would end except for the election of the president. This would be a nightmare scenario for party activists and interest groups, as there would be a dramatic decrease in power they have over elected representatives. Instead, members of Congress would worry about what the middle of their electorate would want, as they would no longer fear a primary challenge funded by a group such as Moveon.org on the left or the Tea Party on the right.

Imagine for a second a Congress filled by far more sensible people, where there are more people like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Olympia Snowe of Maine and John McCain circa 2000. I’m willing to bet a group like that would actually get Congress working again, instead of the current version where we are stricken with nut jobs like Dennis Kucinich and Michelle Bachmann.

While a “jungle primary” remains the dream of this columnist for now, the end of partisan gerrymandering may be around the corner in the largest state of the union, California. Proposition 20 would give control of congressional redistricting to an independent commission and take it out of the hands of the state legislature. If you are a California voter, vote “Yes” on this superb good government initiative. Hopefully, other states will follow California’s lead, and maybe one day we will finally see an end to the grip that special interests and party activists have on politicians.