Do Away With The Congressional Spoils System

Disappearing Democrats (
The Post is right about the Texas Republicans and their attempt to re-do redistricting, but I wonder if they are willing to carry it to its logical conclusion. They say it should not be a spoils system and that the process is so ugly — brother, is it — that doing it once a decade is enough.

I agree completely. I would take it a step further and say the lines should be drawn using an objective criterion such as a mathematical algorithm that reflected the ebb and flow of the population within a state. I doubt The Post would go along, however, because that would mean the end to another spoils system, namely the creation of majority-minority districts to guarantee that black and Latino representatives make it into Congress.

There is a solution to this that should please most and it’s one I favor: increase the size of the House of Representatives from 435 to 1000 or 1500. There’s nothing in the Constitution that prohibits it and it’s just a matter of passing legislation to allow it.

I’ve written about this before (see here, here, here and here) and I haven’t changed my mind a bit: this country, because it has grown so much in the past eighty years since the House was capped at 435, is starved of representation. That’s why these redistricting fights are so brutal and we end up with districts with a perverse shape.

Having adequate representation would do away with much of the need for this fighting because there wouldn’t be so much at stake with the loss of each seat. The sniping, infighting and the like are all signs of a starvation of representation.

The Constitution only places a minimum on the size of a district: it has to have at least 30,000 people. We are no where near that threshold, nor should we try to reach it. Right now we have roughly one representative for every 650,000 people in this country. Raising the size of the House to 1500 would bring that number down to a more sensible 186,670 constituents for each representative.

Doing this would virtually assure that we have a House that “looks like America” and it would be accomplished without a spoils system of any kind. If we are to do it for the next redistricting it will need to be done soon to the give the parties’ time to recruit and groom candidates — they’ll never go along if they don’t have time to prepare.

We should get started soon.

TEXAS DEMOCRATIC LEGISLATORS went to great lengths — all the way to Ardmore, Okla. — to shut down business in their capital by denying a quorum to the House of Representatives. The action was unusual, maybe theatrical, but also fully justified. By staying out of Austin beyond a key legislative deadline, the Democrats at least for now prevented the Republican majority — with guidance from Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in Washington — from redrawing the state’s congressional districts. Had Texas Republicans succeeded — as Republicans did in Colorado in a less ambitious scheme that recently passed — they would have made an already corrupt redistricting system far worse.

Redistricting normally takes place once a decade, after the census and the reapportionment of federal House seats. Yet Republicans this year, having taken control of the Texas Legislature since the last round of line-drawing, realized that they could deal themselves a better hand. And so, confusing “could” with “should,” they tried a radical mid-cycle redistricting that would have had the likely effect of increasing Republican congressional strength and knocking off several Democratic state incumbents. Asked why he was pushing the plan so hard, Mr. DeLay told Post staff writer Juliet Eilperin, “I’m the majority leader, and I want more seats.”

Even if there is no legal impediment to throwing once-a-decade redistricting to the wind, the norm exists for a reason. In most states, legislative line-drawing is an ugly business, dedicated to protecting incumbents and gerrymandering vulnerable members of the minority party out of office. The spectacle is bad enough once every 10 years. But a state’s congressional districts should not change every time the legislature or governorship changes hands. If the Texas Republicans get their way, they will invite retaliation in states such as Illinois, New Mexico and Oklahoma, where new Democratic governors could team up with Democratic legislatures to redraw legislative maps. A sense of civic responsibility, if nothing else, ought to caution against turning the decennial redistricting wars into a continuous feature of state politics.

The great challenge in redistricting is to make the process more rational and less a partisan spoils system — to make districts more compact and representative of genuine communities of interest. The Texas Republican plan is a naked power grab that pushes in the opposite direction. The Post’s Lee Hockstader reported that one street in Austin would cross four districts — one of which snakes 300 miles to the Mexican border. Democracy is supposed to be about voters picking their representatives, not the other way around.

Well Washington Post, put your money where your editorial mouth is: support a dramatic increase in the size of the House of Representatives and do away with the spoils system altogether.

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