Post date: 01.13.05
Issue date: 01.24.05
Calling Arnold Schwarzenegger the most interesting politician in the United States has become a cliché. But every cliché contains a kernel of truth. And California's governor proved that last week when he unveiled a proposal that could do more to improve U.S. politics than any government reform in a long, long time.
It hasn't garnered much national attention, but, in last week's State of the State address, Schwarzenegger proposed taking responsibility for congressional (and state legislative) redistricting away from California's state legislature and giving it to a panel of retired judges. Viewed cynically, Schwarzenegger's initiative looks like yet another Republican effort to guarantee the GOP more House seats. In 2003, in one of the most disgraceful episodes of President Bush's first term, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay got his Republican cronies in the Texas state legislature to draw new, ridiculously partisan congressional districts. (When Texas Democrats fled the state to deny the Republicans a legislative quorum, DeLay's office called the Federal Aviation Administration--prompting a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee.) The move overturned a redistricting plan enacted in 2001 and thus violated what Brookings Institution political scientist Thomas Mann has called "a century-long norm"--the principle that states only redistrict once every ten years, after a new census. The Houston Chronicle, which endorsed Bush in 2000 and again in 2004, said DeLay's move "would set a precedent for redistricting any time a Washington bully wanted to impose it."
In Colorado, the state GOP tried to do much the same thing in 2003 but was blocked by the courts. And, since the GOP wants Schwarzenegger's new system to take effect immediately--thus overturning a 2001 redistricting plan favorable to Democrats and further shredding the once-a-decade rule--many California Democrats seem to view his proposal as just another Republican power grab.
But Schwarzenegger's proposal is actually radically different. In Texas, DeLay clearly set out to destroy political competition. His Republican allies in the state legislature crammed African American and Latino Texans into their own heavily Democratic districts while making the surrounding ones overwhelmingly white, thus handing the Republicans five new House seats. The move made a mockery of the GOP's supposed opposition to racial separatism. And it blanketed the Lone Star State with one-party congressional districts and incumbents who will probably never face a real challenge.
Schwarzenegger's proposal, by contrast, could dramatically increase political competition. When it redistricted in 2001, California's state legislature drew congressional lines that virtually guaranteed reelection for every incumbent, Republican and Democrat. As a result, in 2002, only one of the state's 53 districts witnessed a contested race (and that district wouldn't have been competitive either had Representative Gary Condit not gotten embroiled in the scandal over murdered intern Chandra Levy). Two years later, in 2004, not a single California House seat changed party hands.
New technology, which lets state legislators use precinct-level data about partisan identification to draw exquisitely uncompetitive districts, virtually guarantees that incumbents win reelection. That makes them less accountable to their constituents and more accountable to lobbyists and party bosses. And the problem keeps getting worse. Amy Walter and Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report note that, in 1992, there were 151 competitive House races. By 2004, the number was down to 57. In close to 90 percent of congressional districts, in other words, the outcomes were foregone conclusions.
Schwarzenegger's proposal could change all this. If his panel of retired judges actually drew congressional lines based on factors like contiguity and compactness, and tried to keep communities in the same district (something that rarely happens anymore), it could produce an explosion of contested House races. (If the panel actually made party competitiveness one of its criteria, the effects would be even more dramatic.) In Iowa, where statutes require that congressional lines be drawn according to nonpartisan, commonsense principles, four of the state's five House seats were competitive in 2002. In 2004, it was two out of five. Apply those percentages to California's 53 seats, and you have a political earthquake, which would make the House more responsive to swings in public opinion than it has been in years.
California Democrats are rightly skeptical of Schwarzenegger's demand for a second redistricting this decade. But they should enthusiastically agree to implement his proposed change after the next census, in 2011. Given that Democrats will likely still control California's state legislature then, the switch could still cost them seats. But that's a price worth paying to try to build momentum for a national change in the way redistricting is done.
And the response shouldn't be limited to the Golden State. Democrats across the country should jump on the Schwarzenegger bandwagon, demanding that their states also take redistricting away from the state legislatures that deny voters a real choice over who represents them. In a state like Florida, where the GOP has absurdly gerrymandered to ensure a mass of safe Republican seats, such a change could bring real Democratic gains and perhaps even help put control of the House back in play. More importantly, it would reinvigorate American democracy. Nothing would make our politics more responsive, more dynamic, and more fun than hundreds of contested congressional elections, all over the country.
Since last fall's election, some Democratic strategists have urged the party to seize on the congressional GOP's efforts to repeal the very ethics rules it once championed. Such abuses, they suggest, give Democrats a chance to reclaim the mantle of political reform (see Michael Crowley, "Learning from Newt," page 18). Now Schwarzenegger has given them a perfect opportunity and an unexpected ally. Openings like this don't come along very often. If Democrats don't seize it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.