Why Washington Can’t Solve the Government Shutdown

ID-100107012Gregg Easterbrook is a columnist and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. In his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, he ventured out into politics and talked about one of the major reasons why Washington can’t solve the government shutdown.

If you read nothing else today, you need to read this small part of his column. This link will drop you right to the appropriate spot. It’s about 500 words tops. I’ll wait. In fact, if you have to decide to read him or me, read him. I’m okay with that.

Gregg says:

redistricting after the 2000 and then 2010 Census counts was designed by the parties in power to ensure that no House incumbent can ever be defeated. Zip-code analysis of voting patterns has given way to block-by-block computer analysis, generating gimmick gerrymandering that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed.

The redistricting has created ‘safe’ seats for both Republicans and Democrats. The result is that many representatives are no longer in any danger of losing their seats. Gregg sites a report from the Cook Political Report.

That means today, only 23 percent of members of the House need to perform well to be re-elected. The other 77 percent, on both sides of the aisle, can devote their time and energy to grandstanding. That’s a formula for the mess in Washington.

Basically, the Republicans and Democrats have divided up the seats. You get some, we get some, and we leave some ‘in-play’. This has been done on the state-wide level as well as the national level. It leads to experiences like the one I had on Election Day in 2012. Of the 14 races I could vote on, 11 had a candidate running unopposed or against only a third-party candidate (who was then summarily crushed at the polls).

I asked a friend who volunteered for one of the two big parties about my experience. He told me that there are some races that his team simply knew it couldn’t win so they chose not to put any time or money into a race they knew they would ultimately lose. By creating ‘safe seats’, it allows both parties to concentrate their time and money on the ‘swing-seats’, and virtually ensures that no third party could ever make significant headway.

Gregg asks:

Why voters don’t rebel against redistricting plans that are designed to emasculate them is a third question

Here is another beauty of the ‘safe-seat’ strategy. You only notice it if you are a minority in a safe district.

Let’s look at three possible situations.

You are a red dot in a contested seat.

From your point of view, the political system is working well. Your district is hard fought every time out. Candidates come to your town, or maybe even your neighborhood and make impassioned pleas for your support. You feel like your vote matters. The margins of victory are less than 5% and the seat changes hands often.

You are a red dot in a red ‘safe-seat’.

From your point of view, the political system is working well. Your district is represented by someone who holds to your ideas, and your values. The vast majority of ‘everyone you know’ feels the same way you do and your voice is heard in Washington or your state capital.

You can’t understand why people in the other districts don’t ‘get it’, and why the other politicians refuse to listen to the voice of the voter like your representative does. He’s doing all he can in Washington, but he’s just up against the backhanded tactics of the ‘other side’.

The margins of victory are usually 10% or more and the district has been red for a long time.

In both of the above two situations, the system looks like its working.

You are a blue dot in a red ‘safe-seat’.

From your point of view, the political system is working, but you happen to be on the wrong end of it. You are represented by someone who doesn’t hold your views or ideas, yet you know they align with the majority of your district. Often, your party does not even offer even a token challenge to the incumbent representative. Margins of the victory are 10% or more and the seat rarely if ever changes hands. This leads first to passionate action, but eventually to apathy or a strong desire to relocate.

But in none of the situations do most voters realize they have been emasculated. They can’t tell the system is fundamentally broken and the decked stacked by those in power with the chief aim of staying in power. There is no groundswell of rebellion because most people think the system is working. It’s a plan so brilliant, it’s hard to believe that Washington came up with it.


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