Onek: Partisan Problems as Redistricting Starts

Posted March 30, 2011 at 6:09pm

It is becoming an article of faith in Washington that political partisanship would be reduced if there were fewer Congressional districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. In such districts, the argument runs, Members are concerned only about a primary challenge within their own party. They have little incentive to reach out to independent voters or voters from the other party, or to make common cause with Members of the other party in Washington. Partisanship, not cooperation, is rewarded.

The decennial redistricting of Congress is now under way. Several states, including California and Florida, have established nonpartisan commissions to carry out the redistricting. These commissions may be tempted to adopt the conventional wisdom and to seek to create as many Congressional districts as possible that are politically competitive. For numerous reasons, however, the commissions should not follow this path.

First, the link between redistricting practices and excessive partisanship is not so clear. Redistricting is not an issue in the Senate, yet the Senate today is very partisan. (The extent that the Senate is any less partisan than the House may simply reflect the fact that Senators run for reelection every six years rather than every two years. Note, for example, how much more partisan Sen. John McCain was in 2010, when he faced a primary contest in Arizona, than he was in 2006).

It may perhaps be true that one reason the Senate has become more partisan is the influx of former House Members. But the recent political positioning of Senators such as McCain, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) suggests that fear of losing a party nomination is a more important factor. Thus, excessive partisanship might be reduced in the Senate, as well as the House, by changing state nominating procedures that now enable a relatively small number of highly partisan voters to choose who will be the candidates in the final election.

Second, it will not always be easy to create numerous competitive districts in a given state. Many states have large urban areas that are heavily Democratic surrounded by even larger suburban, exurban and rural areas that are heavily Republican. It would take a new form of gerrymandering to create competitive districts in this situation. Districts would have to be created without any reference to existing state political subdivisions, and they would rarely be compact. Furthermore, such an effort would often conflict with the important goal of ensuring that there are significant numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics in the Congress (and in some cases would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act).

Third, the creation of large numbers of highly competitive districts would make Members of Congress more campaign-focused than ever. It is a common complaint today that Members devote too much time and energy to raising money and campaigning for re-election. The situation would be even worse if the majority of Members had to compete in very close elections every two years. It is likely that, in such circumstances, many able legislators would resign from the House to seek employment elsewhere and many talented Americans would refuse to run for Congress in the first place.

Finally, if Members lose or resign their seats far more often, we will have created a system of de facto term limits. Under such a system, many Members would not serve long enough to gain substantive and procedural expertise. This would enhance the power of the more permanent Washington players — lobbyists, Congressional staff, executive branch bureaucrats and the Senate — and make the House less responsive and effective.

In short, making many Congressional districts highly competitive would cause more problems than it solves. This doesn’t mean that redistricting commissions should seek to protect incumbents, and indeed several state commissions are expressly barred from doing so. But it does mean that competitiveness should not be a factor in commission determinations.  Instead, each commission should focus on ensuring that the Congressional delegation from its state fairly and accurately reflects the state’s political, economic, racial and ethnic makeup. Insofar as possible, the commissions should also propose districts that are compact and respect communities of interest, including cities and counties. If commissions can accomplish these difficult tasks, they will make an important contribution to American democracy.

Joe Onek, a former White House deputy counsel, was senior counsel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi before becoming a principal at the Raben Group in January.