Why has the House of Representatives become more dysfunctional than the Senate over this past year? The shift, now at its most obvious with the current self-inflicted shutdown and debt ceiling crisis, is because of the political insanity of the Republican Tea Party South and the increase in partisanship related to Congressional redistricting. A few years ago, the dominant talk of our government's dysfunction centered on how the Senate was broken, largely due to record levels of partisanship and the unprecedented, serial abuse of the filibuster by Republicans. But now, those days seem almost quaint.
Firstly, let’s look at the modern South, heart of the Tea Party and Obama-hate. The South today inspires no region but itself and has more in common with itself and less in common with the entire rest of the country than any other region. Its extreme politics even work against the socio-economic interests of Southerners themselves. Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War saw our government fail miserably — a grand, noble national agenda sabotaged and derailed by Southern extremists with disastrous long-term consequences. As a new generation of Southern politicians rises to power with a not dissimilar aim of stymieing any effort at getting the South on track with the rest of the U.S., we can only watch with horror as the South not only continues to retard its own progress, but also that of the whole nation.
Exhibit A: The House, with its Tea Party-inflicted disaster on America’s body politic that is our shutdown/debt ceiling crisis. Less than half of Republicans approve of their own party’s actions, Americans overall see Republicans as more extreme and blame them way more than Democrats, and Republicans and the Tea Party have hit all-time (or near all-time) favorability lows. Along with the Senate, the House has grown increasingly partisan and polarized in recent years, breaking all previous records.
All the well-intentioned moves to increase legislative transparency have actually accelerated this, too, as getting rid of earmarks destroyed both a key method of deal-making and a key component of party leaders’ leverage over their caucuses. Opening the doors of smoke-filled backrooms has also meant that battles are increasingly theatrical instead of practical, fought not privately in person, but publicly across airwaves. Theoretically, this would be a good thing, but now comes the impact of redistricting.
In recent years, many districts have become increasingly non-diverse partisan echo chambers. Republicans were successful at manipulating redistricting — adjusting the boundaries of districts every 10 years in response to population changes tracked by the census — to favor themselves. Yet because many of these Congressional seats are so homogeneous and safe from the opposing party, those who win them don’t depend on favors from party leaders. Such a decentralized party has much more room for extremists, beholden only to their mutant districts no matter how polarizing or unpopular their behavior is outside of them.
Thus, the Tea Party is not currently just a grassroots movement but a solid caucus in Congress. And since they came to power often by challenging relatively “moderate” when compared to Tea-Party traditional Republicans, they can drag the rest of their party with them with threats of being “primaried” — losing a long-held seat to a more extreme challenger — hanging over the heads non-Tea-Partiers. Unlike Senators, who still need to win a variety of constituencies, House candidates can focus on narrow demographics. These people were not elected to compromise, and they’re staying true to their promises.
Furthermore, this redistricting has packed Republicans into homogeneous districts, while dispersing many Democrats into districts where they are not a majority but are a substantial minority. This way, instead of getting a Congressional delegation that is proportional to the balance between the parties for a state, often Republicans have a moderate -to severe disproportionate advantage. In the 10 states with such imbalances, seven favored Republicans; across all 10, an average of a 7% vote in favor of Republicans, translated into a 76% advantage for them in the number Congressmen sent to the House. In this way, 1.4 million more votes were cast for Democrats in the 2012 House elections, and yet Republicans ended up with a 234-201 advantage in House seats.
Is there hope? Maybe. California is one of a small group of states that have independent or bipartisan redistricting commissions. These states don’t have an imbalance like those 10 and their delegations accurately reflect how their people voted. The only hope to restore some sense to the House would be for people to demand that their state legislators surrender control of redistricting to commissions (like California and most democracies), making this a central issue in state-level elections.
But being in the citizens' hands, I won't be holding my breath.