Are State Legislators to Blame for Washington's Partisanship?

After a fitful, month-long rise from the grave, bipartisanship in Washington has once again been pronounced dead (on Friday the 13th, no less). Democrats say ...
by | February 13, 2009

After a fitful, month-long rise from the grave, bipartisanship in Washington has once again been pronounced dead (on Friday the 13th, no less). Democrats say they offered Republicans an open hand, but were met with a clinched fist. Republicans say it was the other way around. Before too long, though, I expect we'll hear folks begin to blame another group: state legislators.

Why state legislators? They're the ones who draw congressional districts. They've had the habit recently of adopting incumbent-protection plans that create districts that are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican.

The theory goes that partisan districts produce partisan representatives. Too many congressmen are more worried about primary challenges than general election challenges, so they stick to the fringes of their party and avoid bipartisanship. If state legislators would just draw more swing districts, the theory goes, Washington would work a whole lot better.

I'm certainly not here to praise the job legislators do drawing congressional districts, but I'm not here to bury them either. I think that state legislators have been turned into scapegoats for Congress' dysfunction.

The premise that federal politics it too partisan or more partisan than it was in the past deserves scrutiny. Perhaps Congress is more partisan than it was a few decades ago, but it's easy to think of other contentious eras in Washington. Then again, 19th century American politics was known for its civility. Back then, even the wars were civil.

What's more, legislators don't have a free hand to draw districts however they'd like. They have to grapple with states where, more often than not, Democrats and Republicans are each concentrated in specific geographic areas.

Unless the New York legislature came up with districts that stretched from Brooklyn to Buffalo (I wouldn't put it past them), inevitably there will a bunch of New York City districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic. Compactness and partisan competitiveness are two principles of "good" congressional districts, but often these two principles come into conflict.

Plus, for better or worse, legislators in Southern states are forced to draw partisan districts by the Voting Rights Act's requirement to ensure minority representation. When African-Americans are concentrated in specific districts, those districts end up being overwhelmingly Democratic, while the rest of the Southern districts generally end up being very Republican.

Another thing to keep in mind: The partisan bent of a congressional district isn't always a great determinant of which party will win the U.S. House seat. By my very rough count (using this data), about 70 current House members are either Democrats representing districts won by McCain or Republicans representing districts won by Obama. You'd think that would create a natural base of moderates to ease partisan tensions, but it hasn't worked out that way.

You'd also have to think that, if the problem were district drawing, the U.S. Senate would be far less partisan than the House. At best, it's marginally less partisan and that's mainly because of the rules of the Senate, not because the representation is any different. If Senate Democrats had been able to pass the stimulus with a simple majority instead of 60 votes, there's a good chance the vote would have been purely along party lines. That suggests to me that the causes of partisanship are much deeper.

I can think of lots of good reasons why the redistricting process needs reform. For example, if districts are all stacked with partisan voters from one side or the other, it becomes much less likely that a shift in the national mood will be reflected by a shift in the partisan balance in Congress. Creating a new birth of bipartisanship in Washington, though, probably isn't one of reasons.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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