For most Americans, the end of the Federal government’s partial shutdown – and the far more serious evasion of debt default – brought a sense of relief.
This was not true, of course, for the delusional right, which has apparently embraced what one commentator has called the “Thelma and Louise” approach to national governance. (If you missed the movie, it ends with the two heroines deliberately driving their convertible off a cliff).
But even for those of us who let out a sigh of relief, that relief was mitigated by the fact that these twin crises could well be renewed early in 2014.
The differences between the two major parties remain unresolved. Pleasant luncheon meetings between key Democratic and Republican legislators are not going to resolve those differences.
Neither is the popular notion of voting out all 435 Representatives – and the 30-odd Senators up for re-election next year.
Nor will term limits, nor threats to withhold pay from Congressmen during times of government shut-down.
None of the simplistic, feel-good or get-mad approaches so popular on the internet will make any difference.
Our problem is systemic. Dysfunctional congressional government – like the problem of concussions in the NFL – is ultimately not about personal responsibility. It’s about the rules of the game.
Congress has become a failed institution because of the way we conduct elections in this country.
Since the founding of the Republic, both state legislators and Congressmen have been elected from districts. These districts are drawn up every ten years – shortly after each decennial census – by the fifty state legislatures.
And, since the earliest years of the Republic, these districts have been drawn up in such a way as to favor the election of certain interests over others.
It’s called gerrymandering, and what amounts to is this: Instead of the voters choosing their representatives, the representatives choose their voters.
Gerrymandering got its name back in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry helped to carve out districts favoring his party. One district was shaped like a salamander.
In 1812, gerrymandering was an inexact science. Politicians had a notion which towns or villages were most likely to support their party – but a certain amount of guesswork was involved.
Sometimes, they got it wrong.
Today, using the vast accumulation of data gathered about each of us every time we go online, powerful computers can draw up districts which are virtually unwinnable for one party or the other.
Which means that, in those districts, November elections are essentially meaningless. The only thing that matters, in choosing a congressman, is the nomination process.
And very few voters participate in the primary or convention process which chooses a party candidate.
Chester, for example, is represented by long-time Congressman Randy Forbes. A lot of Chester folks like Mr. Forbes – which is fortunate, because next November, he will be re-elected, whether Chester folks like him or not.
The Fourth Congressional District would re-elect Mr. Forbes if the Democrats nominated a candidate who combined all the best qualities of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, Peyton Manning, and the Pope.
Because of the way the lines are drawn.
Across the United States, in a typical year, fully 90 percent of 435 congressional seats are essentially locked up for one party or the other.
Again, here in Chester, if you’re a Republican, you win. If you’re a Democrat, you’re out of luck.
You’re also out of luck if you’re an independent, because you have no say in whom the Republicans nominate for Congress – and once they nominate him, you have no chance of electing anyone else.
This works for both parties. Right next door, in the Third District, Democrat Bobby Scott is just as safe as Randy Forbes. Voters in Mr. Scott’s district have no meaningful choice, either.
Congressional districts are, as noted, drawn up by state legislatures. And here’s the really weird thing: State legislative districts – for both the House of Delegates and State Senate – are also drawn up by the state legislature.
Which is, one might say, the very definition of a conflict of interest.
Now, it’s bad enough that legislative districts are gerrymandered to guarantee that only one party has a chance.
What’s worse is that one-party districts have a strong, well-documented tendency to elect extreme candidates.
When a district is safely Republican, Republicans don’t need to find a moderate candidate who can appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. They can nominate the most conservative Republican available – and still win.
At present, the trend toward extremism is slightly less pronounced in Democratic districts – but not much.
Which is why Congress has so much trouble finding a compromise solution to our country’s fiscal – and other – problems. Very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats don’t want to work together.
And gerrymandering almost guarantees that the sort of moderate congressmen who might be willing to cooperate and compromise have become an endangered species in Congress.