When one political party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, history reveals they usually have it made in the shade. The party can push nominations and pass legislation that would normally have to be withdrawn or watered down to a compromise that no one is particularly pleased about. President Barack Obama wouldn’t have been able to wrangle the votes for the Affordable Care Act if it weren’t for the fact that his fellow Democrats dominated the House of Representatives and briefly had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Complete control of the political branches provided Obama with just enough juice to pass the biggest domestic legislative overhaul since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Republicans don’t have a super-majority, but they do have control on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet instead of doing what the Democrats did during Obama’s era, the GOP is infighting on virtually every subject under the sun. The Republican failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last week surfaced the lingering ideological divisions that have roiled the party ever since representatives of the Tea Party movement were swept into office in 2010.
Unfortunately for House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—the top two Republican officials who are in the tough position of whipping votes from these ultra-conservatives on a weekly basis—the system of gerrymandering that has dominated how congressional districts are drawn virtually assures that this inter-party war won’t end anytime soon. A tool that Republicans have used to shift the electoral map to their advantage has come back to bite the Republican leadership in the rear.
If there is one topic that Americans revile even more than the US Congress, it’s gerrymandering. While explaining gerrymandering can get a little complicated (try reading Robert Draper’s 2012 piece in The Atlantic without feeling dizzy), it generally boils down to a bunch of state lawmakers from the majority party getting in a room together after every census and constructing congressional districts that give their party maximum advantage at the federal level. A basic example would be a Republican-dominated state legislature in North Carolina packing Democratic voters into a few districts in order to spread out Republican votes around the state. All of a sudden, a Democratic voter who once lived in a swing district may now wake up and find themselves residing with a bunch of fellow Democrats densely packed like sardines—with district lines that look more like they were drawn by Dali than Mondrian.
It’s an inherently undemocratic process of rigging the game, but Republicans and Democrats have both done it. During 2010, however, Republican-led state legislatures went above and beyond normal tinkering. As Politico reported on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, districts in states that were generally close in terms of the Republican-Democrat voter divide were shifted in such a way that afforded the GOP lopsided wins in the midterm elections. By the time the polls closed in 2010, 73 Republicans lawmakers were elected in those seven states compared to 34 Democrats—an amazing margin considering that these same states had an almost even split in terms of the raw vote count (16.7 million Republicans and 16.4 million Democrats voted).
Why does gerrymandering matter?
In addition to being a process that reeks of parochialism and could reasonably be described as legal vote rigging (though the Supreme Court is examining that legality), the prevalence of gerrymandering means that the number of competitive, centrist congressional districts has gone way down. In the old days, the Republican and Democratic candidates would duke it out to the finish. That is becoming rarer and rarer today; an increasing amount of districts are either solid red or solid blue, where being unseated by a far-right or a far-left primary challenger in a safe Republican or Democratic district is increasingly seen as the bigger threat to the incumbent. As Brian Klaas wrote in The Washington Post, “[i]f you’re elected to represent a district that is 80% Republican or 80% Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise.” If an incumbent wants to stay in office, he or she better be as hardline, rabid, and uncompromising as possible.
Gerrymandering has in effect been one of the greatest levers for the House Freedom Caucus, the same group of lawmakers who shut the government down in 2013, almost shut the Department of Homeland Security down in 2015, and torpedoed a top legislative priority of a Republican White House last week. Republican leadership and the dwindling share of moderates in the GOP caucus are left scratching their heads about how to deal with these people, or whether they will take “yes” or an answer. As long as gerrymandering continues to be in the hands of partisan state lawmakers who look out for their colleagues at the national level, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and even President Donald Trump will scratch their heads until they don’t have any hair left.
The American people should prepare for even more of the uncompromising gridlock, lashing out, and blame-gaming that they saw with the American Health Care Act last week. Trump is making noises about appealing to Democrats for his next batch of legislative priorities—tax cuts and infrastructure spending. But until Congress has balanced districts that feature competitive general elections, legislators on the far ends of the political spectrum have no incentive to support Trump’s—or any president’s—centrist proposals. Unless the 2020 round of redistricting fixes things (which Obama has targeted with a campaign to take back seats for Democrats)—or the Supreme Court strikes down gerrymandering nationwide—politicians and their extremist primary supporters will continue to see negotiating with the other party as a vulnerability, rather than a virtue.