Iowa is represented in the U.S. House by three Republicans and one Democrat. After last year’s census, an independent advisory commission drew a new map that reaffirmed the current balance, but made one of the Republican districts slightly more competitive.
This entirely reasonable adjustment was rejected by the state senate along strictly partisan lines: All Republicans opposed the map and all Democrats supported it. Afterwards, Democratic Sen. Tony Bisignano warned: “The partisanship is killing this country. The partisanship is killing this body. It’s killing local bodies. It’s killing neighborhoods and friendships.”
States are now drawing new district lines for a Congress where Democrats hold a very narrow margin. As Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution writes, “The stakes could not be higher, since the new maps will dictate politics for years to come.”
Those maps won’t just determine which party controls the House, however. They will influence which legislators come to Washington and how they perform their jobs.
Today, the center of the Congress has been hollowed out. Pragmatists in both parties who represent swing districts – and actually pay attention to voters from the other party – are headed for extinction. The U.S. House closely resembles a European parliament, where there’s virtually no negotiation or even conversation across partisan lines. And the rigidity is getting worse.
“Of the country’s 435 congressional districts, Trump or President Biden won just 50 of them by 5 or less percentage points,” reports The Washington Post. “Those swing districts could be reduced by at least a third after redistricting, experts estimate.”
In Texas, Democrats were eyeing two districts with growing Latino populations as possible takeovers, but Republicans drafted new maps that probably puts them out of reach. In Ohio, Republican governor Mike DeWine signed off on a new plan and admitted, “This committee could have come up with a bill that was much more clearly, clearly constitutional, and I’m sorry we did not do that.”
Republicans shoulder most of the blame, but only because they control more state legislatures and governorships. When they have the chance, Democrats can be equally perfidious. In Oregon, for instance, the legislature made two swing districts more heavily blue. In Maryland, Democrats are contemplating a map that would eliminate the only remaining Republican congressman in a state that has a Republican governor and almost 1 million Trump voters.
In Illinois and New York, Democratic mapmakers could eliminate districts represented by Adam Kinzinger and John Katko – two of the 10 Republicans who stood up to President Trump and backed his impeachment.
“Right now, Democrats in Illinois are picking their own voters behind closed doors – using their power to make sure their party stays in power,” Kinzinger said in a press statement. “We see this on both sides of the aisle, and this adherence to party politics will only further the divide we have in this country. Tribalism is absolutely ruining politics, and it’s leaving many to feel politically homeless as a result.”
Jason Altmire, a moderate Democrat who was gerrymandered out of his seat near Pittsburgh a decade ago, told the Post, “If you’re representing a district where you have to listen to both sides, you hear both points of view, and then you go to Washington and you find most everyone else comes from a district where they only hear one viewpoint.”
In today’s Congress, the extremes prevail: the tea party on the right and the Sanderistas on the left. “If you draw a district that’s safe, the party no longer cares about recruiting a broadly appealing candidate,” David Wasserman, an election analyst for the Cook Political Report, observed in the Post. “This is a vicious cycle in that the decline of competitive seats leads to a more extreme and dysfunctional Congress.”
For many years, voting rights advocates hoped the Supreme Court would step in and rule that radical gerrymandering violates the Constitution. But in 2019, five justices nominated by Republicans threw up their hands and said redistricting was a political issue, not a legal one. Justice Elena Kagan warned in an angry dissent: “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government.”
Ten states now use some form of independent commission to draw district lines, and Congress should pass a long-stalled bill that would mandate those panels for all states. As Iowa demonstrates, commissions can be subverted by partisan warriors, but they are far preferable to a system dominated by raw political power.
A legislature without centrists will only continue the “vicious cycle” that makes Congress increasingly “extreme and dysfunctional.”
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]