As a new Congress gets sworn in, there is little evidence in the wake of the 'fiscal cliff' debacle it will act any differently than the last one. Who else but Congress in their right mind would create an aritificial budget crisis in the middle of a holiday which threatened to thrust the nation back into a recession? We elected them to do that???!!! Yet to help understand how we got here, and who is really to blame for the political ineptitude revealed by the 'fiscal cliff' mess, ask yourself these three 'crazy' questions.
1. Why did so many House Republicans threaten to reject a 'fiscal cliff' deal which raises taxes only on the wealthy when no deal would have meant not only raising taxes on everyone, but likely have hurt the wealthy even more? That's crazy!
2. Why would a House District in Chicago re-elect Jesse Jackson Jr. to office even though he hadn't been to work for months, was under criminal investigation, and seemed likely to step down? That's also crazy!
3. Why are there a record 20 women in the next U.S. Senate but only one African-American (a Republican who was appointed, not elected, to the seat)? That's crazy too!
Three different topics, yet the answers to all three questions are actually in essence the same. It's because State Legislatures have become so adept at using computerization to create 'safe' Congressional seats. The Democrat-dominated Illinois legislature recently did it to get Republicans Don Manzullo and Bobby Schilling out of office. The state's Congressional Districts are now so unwieldy that some stretch for hundreds of miles, leaving Rockford with no single Congressman who calls our area 'home.'
The process is called 'Gerrymandering' -- redrawing Congressional districts to achieve a specific political outcome -- and it has been around for a long time. It gained greater acceptance during the Civil Rights era, however, when Congressional districts were redrawn to insure minority representation in the House of Representatives. The move was a good-natured effort to redress racial inequality, but it had unintended consequences. That's because in addition to creating 'safe' seats for minority Democrats (like Jesse Jackson, Jr's.), it also created some 'safe' seats for whites as well because minorities were removed from their districts in the process.
Then, as computers became better able to predict voting behavior, state legislatures redrew more and more 'safe' districts which better reflected the party in power in the Statehouse. Texas was one of the pioneers of this tactic, gerrymandering out Democrats. Illinois is the latest adopter to unseat Republicans. Some estimate as many as 3/4's of the seats in the House are now 'safe' ones free from political competition.
So how does gerrymandering relate to our three questions?
Question 1 Answer: Because House Republicans are far more fearful of a primary challenge from the right than they are any Democratic general election challenger. As a result, they refuse to vote for anything which would subject them to possible Tea Party opposition no matter what the practical consequences.
Question 2 Answer: Because Jackson's district is so dominated by Democrats and minorites, whoever is the Democratic nominee is guaranteed the seat, even as in Jackson's case if they are ill, possibly corrupt, and unlikely to serve out the term.
Question 3 Answer: In part because African-American Representatives have little incentive to leave a 'safe' seat where they are assured re-election -- for a statewide seat which they may lose. That's not true of women, who do not have House seats gerrymandered for them and therefore don't have the same job security in Congress. That's in part why there are a record number of African-Americans in the House and no elected ones in the Senate, and not a single incumbant black Congressman ran for the Senate in 2012. By contrast, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, who is not only a woman but openly gay, ran for Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat and won.
So who is really to blame for the fiscal cliff mess? State legislatures such as Illinois' which have reduced or even eliminated competition for many Congressional seats through district manipulation should get more of the blame.
The solution would be to end gerrymandering altogether and draw districts based on the geographic placement of population, not party and/or racial demographics. Minorities would oppose that however because it would potentially reduce their numbers in Congress. Many Republicans would oppose it for the very same reason, as some believe redistricting manipulation by Republican dominated state legislatures has artificially inflated the party's numbers in the House.
Many in Congress like the current system because they don't have to work very hard to keep their jobs. It's worth asking if we would have such a crazy situation such as the 'fiscal cliff' if they did.