Angry About Partisan Gridlock in Washington? Blame the States.

By using redistricting to protect incumbents and reduce the number of truly competitive legislative races, many states have set the stage for all the nasty battles playing out in Congress.
December 2013
This political cartoon was the inspiration for the term “gerrymandering.” It was drawn in reaction to the state senate electoral districts created by the Massachusetts legislature in 1812.
This political cartoon was the inspiration for the term “gerrymandering.” It was drawn in reaction to the state senate electoral districts created by the Massachusetts legislature in 1812.

Fed up with nonstop congressional gridlock? You’re not alone. A recent poll showed Americans had a higher opinion of root canals, head lice, cockroaches, Brussels sprouts, Genghis Khan and colonoscopies than of Congress. And that was before the government shutdown.

At the height of this fall’s embarrassing crisis, the New York Daily News ran the headline, “D.C. cess-pols shut down government,” to which The Washington Post responded, “The problem with that funny headline: These pols aren’t from D.C.” One Post writer went on to remind America, “You sent these wackos here.”

The sad part is that these “wackos” don’t need to worry much about being sent back home. In the 2012 races, 90 percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 91 percent of members of the U.S. Senate won re-election. As John J. Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College political scientist, told a reporter, “It wasn’t a ‘throw the bums out’ election, it was a ‘throw the bums in’ election.” The re-election rate in the House would have been even higher if redistricting hadn’t pushed 13 House members into races against other incumbents.

Once elected to the House, it’s hard for most members to lose. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza found that 29 percent of House Republicans and an astounding 51 percent of House Democrats won their 2012 races with at least 67 percent of the vote. That means that 38 percent of the members of the House have little to fear at election time. The result, Cillizza says, is that “the incentive to cooperate with the other side and find bipartisan solutions is almost nil.”

Who is to blame for so many members of Congress in super-safe seats and facing very few tight races? The roots of this imbalance run right back to state capitols. Drawing the boundaries for federal races is a state responsibility, and they’re the product of intense state-level politics. It’s a case where conflict flows uphill.

Within the states, redistricting varies widely. Seven states have it easy—they have just one representative to the House. Six other states rely on commissions to draw the boundaries. And in the rest, the legislature is in charge, and that’s where most of the fireworks happen, especially after the once-a-decade Census starts the line drawing.

With the rise of personal computers, redistricting increasingly is a game anyone can play. All players have to do is download Census data—which they can do down to the block level—and then choose their favorite software (autoBound and DistrictBuilder are available for free) to create any kind of district. It’s easy to punish your enemies and reward your friends.

Redistricting wars are nothing new, of course. In 1812, The Boston Gazette attacked Gov. Elbridge Gerry for drawing an especially contorted state senate district. At the time, the district was likened to a salamander, and thus the term “gerrymandering” was born. With sophisticated computer software, it’s far easier to “gerrymander” districts, block by block, to protect incumbents and reduce the number of truly competitive legislative races. And that’s just what many states have done, setting the stage for all these nasty congressional battles over the budget.

Redistricting has made many Republican districts redder. Most of the Tea Party Republicans who forced Speaker John Boehner into a conservative corner are in super-safe seats with constituents cheering them on. And redistricting has similarly put many Democrats in districts that are only getting bluer.

Of course, it’s much too simple to blame redistricting for the mess in Washington. For one, there are much deeper schisms at work. Racial and ethnic polarization is growing. Of the votes Mitt Romney received in 2012, nine of 10 came from white voters. Meanwhile, the Democrats have built up their base among Hispanics and have maintained their hold on black voters. Another schism is the growing separation of presidential politics from congressional races, which led the nation to re-elect a Democratic president while keeping Republicans in control of the House. Bridges between the president and Congress have crumbled, and recent battles haves only deepened the partisan polarization. The government shutdown also revealed a huge gap between the parties on the role of government itself.

These forces have made it harder to govern, and redistricting has only worked to shrink the incentives for both parties to compromise. Safe seats don’t necessarily lead to extreme politics but, as political scientist Alan Abramowitz asked a reporter, “How do you build a coalition from the center out when there’s no one in the middle?”

Redistricting in the states has helped erase the center and reinforce the extremes. In fact, the gridlock in Washington is simply the reflection of polarization in the states, and the recent budgetary escapades have only made it worse. We’ll be able to govern in Washington again—but only when the states become more united.