Two words that set the stage for government gridlock

By Donald C. Fry

Like most fiscal power struggles on Capitol Hill, there are many factors and nuances shaping the current one that has prompted the federal government shutdown and the accompanying blame-fest, both of which are aggravating to at least two-thirds of the American public, according to opinion polls.

However, a major driver of debilitating brinkmanship and failure to compromise that is surfacing in Congress can be summed up in two words: “safe seats.”

That’s an issue being raised by national political commentators and even by business leaders in Maryland as a significant impediment to focused, problem-solving policymaking at both the national and state levels.

Power struggles over federal budgets and expenditures have existed since the late 1700s when our founding fathers gave Congress, not the President, control over spending, notes Connie Cass in a September 30 Huffington Post piece detailing the comparatively new penchant in Washington for government shutdowns as a negotiating tactic.

In the first two centuries of our country’s existence, our elected leaders managed to get through budget “show downs” without shutting down the government. In the last 33 years, however, there have been at least nine federal shutdowns, including the current one.

Why has abandonment of compromise in favor of a government shutdown emerged as a tactic lawmakers in Washington appear increasingly willing to tolerate? Why has the joy of obstructionism overtaken the art of compromise and problem solving?

Here’s one answer. Redistricting practices (i.e., the drawing of legislative and Congressional districts) in the United States contribute significantly to setting the stage for gridlock, at least one prominent political analyst suggests.

Some, especially liberals, attribute failure to compromise in Congress to “irrationality” of Republican members. But instead, the answer could be that “individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives,” writes New York Times political columnist Nate Silver.

“Most members of the House now come from hyper-partisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party,” Silver writes in a December piece headlined “As Swing Districts Dwindle, Can a Divided House Stand?

The number of House “swing” districts – defined as those congressional districts where voters neither strongly support nor lean toward one party or the other – has been steadily declining during the last 20 years, decreasing from 103 in 1992 to only 35 – a mere 8 percent of the total U.S. House of Representatives – in the 2012 election, Silver’s analysis shows.

He calculates 220 districts either strongly support or lean toward Republicans and 180 districts either strongly support or lean toward Democrats.

He attributes “increasing polarization” among voters in Congressional districts to 2012 redistricting efforts where majority Republican and Democratic lawmakers who conducted redistricting shored up incumbents in respective states they controlled and “packed” opposing party voters into a few districts where opponents overwhelmingly prevailed.

This scenario should sound familiar to Marylanders, where Democrats control the redistricting and minority-party vote-packing.
Meanwhile, virtually everyone inside and outside of Washington, despite whoever they blame for the shutdown, expresses extreme frustration over chronic gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Maryland’s newest member of the House, 6th District Congressman John Delaney, a Democrat who was elected following a fresh redistricting of Western Maryland, voices frustration about “gridlock and dysfunction” in Congress. Speaking to GBC members, he advocates for leaders of both parties to stop focusing on partisan battles and to instead negotiate “responsible compromise.”

Contrary to less-than-positive public opinions of them, most people in Congress are smart and have “the right kind of motivations,” Delaney, who is the only member of the House who was a CEO of a publicly-traded company, said. “But there really are a bad set of incentives in government, in terms of how people behave and how they approach situations.”

Maryland business leaders who attended a Greater Baltimore Committee day-long conference on competitiveness in June issued a report that, among other things, called on state leaders to consider changing the state’s Congressional and legislative redistricting process to cultivate more election competitiveness and a better balance of ideas and policy solutions in Washington and Annapolis.

There are no magic bullets to address the mess our elected leaders are making in Washington or the polarization in Annapolis that stifles beneficial competitiveness in Maryland’s legislative arena.

But in both venues, evidence appears that the emphasis on politics over genuine balance in the redistricting process is not serving us well. It fosters polarization and a strict ideologue mentality on both sides of the political spectrum that spawns policy gridlock.

A number of states have turned to some form of commission in order to take redistricting out of the hands of state legislators or to at least mitigate their influence.

It’s an idea that’s at least worth considering. Why not develop a different framework for future rounds of redistricting in Maryland? We would all benefit from a process that better promotes the problem-solving that government is supposed to be all about.

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