NASHVILLE, Ind. – If you needed a poster for the dysfunction in Congress, look no further than the “We Shall Overcome” photo op Tuesday. John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell linked hands and arms and swayed uncomfortably as they observed the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The look in their eyes told a deeper story. The distrust was evident.
That Congress is so polarized and unable to act on critical issues led to what is now called the Assembly of State Legislatures, which met for two days at the Indiana Statehouse earlier this month in an attempt to fire up an Article V Constitutional Convention. Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore David Long is a driving force behind the movement. His motivation is an end-around Congress to forge a constitutional balanced budget amendment.
About 100 legislators from 31 states gathered in the House chambers, but only six were Democrats. State Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, observed, “This is something the Constitution has afforded us; it’s never been taken advantage of. Let’s think outside the box and look at it. If it doesn’t work out, no harm, no foul. At least the interest is there.”
But one of the reasons Congress is so polarized is due to state legislatures, which in most states draw the congressional maps. If you look at Indiana’s nine districts, drawn by legislative mapmakers (with help from partisan expert cartographers in Washington), you find why Congress is so polarized and unable to function. The Hoosier maps stuff an overwhelming number of Democrats into just two districts, the 1st (+10 on the Cook Partisan Index) and 7th (+13 on the CPI) in The Region and Indianapolis. In one district, the 2nd, you find it competitive with a +6 Republican rating on the CPI. The other six seats are overwhelmingly Republican, with CPI ratings of between +8 and +13.
The Indiana maps drawn in 2011 were based on a formula espoused by then Secretary of State Todd Rokita, to keep districts confined to existing boundaries such as county lines, and to preserve “communities of interest.” But the reality is that creating such “communities of interest” now means that you keep Democrats in a few districts and group Republicans in the rest. So a state that routinely had four or five competitive congressional races in the past two decades now has the potential for very few. And this is repeated in state after state. In 2010, Republicans took advantage of President Obama’s first mid-term and the political fallout from Obamacare to forge majorities, resulting in 25 states with Republicans in control of both chambers (as well as Nebraska’s unicameral legislature), Democrats in control of 18 and party splits in the other six.
In a Pew Research survey released earlier this month, the fruits of such divisions are evident: Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive than at any point in the last two decades. Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.
Pew continues: “And at a time of increasing gridlock on Capitol Hill, many on both the left and the right think the outcome of political negotiations between Obama and Republican leaders should be that their side gets more of what it wants.”
State legislatures are shoehorning Republicans and Democrats into separate districts and we produce more members of Congress rigid in ideology and that produces gridlock.
Long’s effort to forge an Article V convention remains a work in progress. Democrats I talked with expressed deep suspicion over the exercise, with many seeing it as a ruse to gut social safety net programs. Democratic states such as New York, Massachusetts and California were not represented.
How could Long and other Republican leaders of the Assembly of State Legislatures draw the blue states in? Perhaps by offering to set up non-partisan redistricting commissions to draw the Congressional maps in 2021.
This very issue confronts Long today. A redistricting commission bill backed by Speaker Brian Bosma died in the Indiana Senate last winter. Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane pointed to Senate Republicans as the force that killed it.
In an April Howey Politics Indiana, Long said, “We are extremely proud of the maps we drew in the 2011 redistricting effort, where the process was fair, open, transparent, and totally compatible with the recommended guidelines set out by the U.S. Supreme Court.” Long added that he is interested in “common sense ideas” and will support the creation of a blue ribbon commission on redistricting in 2015.
I’ve known Long for two decades since I covered him on the Fort Wayne City Council. He’s in it for the right reasons. Even though I have little faith or trust in Congress, I believe the Article V convention is an idea with considerable merit.
But he and other legislators involved in that process should look in the mirror when it comes to why Congress is so utterly dysfunctional.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.