Why Congress Sucks So Bad

Behind Enemy Lines Radio, Gerrymandering
(Editor's Note:  Welcome our newest contributor to BEL, Nat Paul. We look forward to great things from Nat, as his first piece clearly shows that he has a good head on his shoulders!)

Congress is useless.

Everyone knows it, and most of us say it regularly. Gallup polls show that the public’s approval of Congress has not topped 30% since 2009, and not reached 40% since 2004. Over the same time span, Congress has earned a disapproval rating close to 80%. Yet despite almost universal frustration and disapproval, congressmen continue to win reelection at least 85% of the time.

How do these legislators retain their seats when they are so widely disliked?

To answer that question, we need to examine the electoral system itself, as well as the congressman’s place in it. American congressmen are elected in a single-member districting system. This means that the residents of every state must be divided into districts of roughly equal population, and that the single candidate to receive the most votes wins the election. A handful of states require a majority, and use a run-off election between the top two candidates if none received more than 50% of the vote. In most states, however, a majority is unnecessary, and a candidate can be elected to congress without the support of most voters.

Further skewing the system is the age-old election hack of gerrymandering.

First perpetrated in 1812 by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, this practice involves reshaping elective districts in order to give one party an advantage over the other. In Gerry’s case, the maneuver allowed his Democratic-Republican Party to wrest control of the state government away from the Federalist Party. Since then, state governments have redrawn district boundaries countless times in order to skew future elections in their party’s favor. These manipulated boundaries can produce districts of truly grotesque shape and size. More importantly, they silence the voice of some voters in order to amplify that of others.

Most cases of gerrymandering can be categorized as one of two types: “packing” or “cracking.” “Packing” is the practice of cramming as many opposition voters into as few districts as possible. This guarantees the opposition one or more safe seats, but allows the majority party even more safe seats. “Cracking” is the practice of dividing the opposition-majority areas into as many districts as possible. This allows the majority party to “divide and conquer” by reducing the opposition to an ineffective minority in most or all districts.

This practice is often employed at the state level in order to allow one party a veto-proof majority in the state legislature after barely winning more votes. Since most state legislatures retain the power to partially or completely determine congressional district lines, they control how many Democrats and how many Republicans will represent their state in Congress.

Beyond swinging a handful of congressional seats one way or the other, these layers of gerrymandering allow an active minority in a few states to skew representation and dictate policy on the national level.

This manipulation of democracy goes beyond one party winning at the other’s expense. It allows the members of Congress to benefit at the expense of the people. By creating un-contestable seats, both Democratic and Republican congressmen are able to keep their jobs for decades regardless of their performance. With no threat offered by the other party, these incumbents’ only competition is the party primary. These primaries almost always favor the incumbent, who generally has better name recognition and campaign funding. Furthermore, challengers often split the votes of the dissatisfied majority and allow the incumbent to win without majority support.

Historically, gerrymandering has not often been prohibited by law, except when performed along racial lines. The 1993 SCOTUS case of Shaw v. Reno determined that using redistricting as a means of repressing minority voters violates the 14th Amendment. Gerrymandering along party lines instead of racial lines, however, has received far less scrutiny until recently.

Within the past year, federal court decisions have struck down egregiously gerrymandered redistricting maps in several states, most notably Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These legal battles are ongoing, but bode well for the anti-gerrymandering camp, whose party affiliation varies from state to state.

Elections should be fair and competitive. When the elections are not competitive, too many voters become disenfranchised. They understandably lose confidence in the system and stay home on Election Day. American voters should know that their votes matter. Congressmen should know that they are beholden to their constituents.

The voters should choose their congressman; not the other way around.

Nat Paul was born in Australia with dual citizenship and grew up travelling between there and the USA. At 19, he enlisted in the US Army Reserve. Nat believes that a career of service is an important prerequisite for political office. He graduated from The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina, with a degree in Political Science, a focus in International Affairs, and a minor in East Asia Studies.

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About Nat Paul

Behind Enemy Lines is a national Award-Winning radio show / podcast broadcasting live out of the belly of the Democratic beast - "The People's Republic of" New York City that airs on multiple radio stations as part of the Talk America Radio Network! The show is also available on multiple networks across the internet, with more being added regularly.

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