Gerrymandering, Gun Violence and the Sad State of Legislative Gridlock
According to most reports, following the September 14, 2012, Newtown, CN grade school massacre, 90% of Americans, including gun owners and NRA members, were in agreement that some stronger controls on the purchase of weapons was appropriate. Background checks for 100% of gun purchases, eliminating the gun show loophole, and a nationwide coordinated automated registry of domestic violence perpetrators and those with mental health commitments, were favored by many of the American people. Even the President was in favor of these measures. Yet no such laws were even introduced into Congress, let alone voted on by the members. Why did this happen?
Fast forward to the Summer of 2017; although the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) had by that time become favored by the majority of Americans, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act, which, if enacted into law, would have stripped health insurance from millions of Americans, increased premiums, and given a huge tax benefit to wealthy health insurance companies and executives. The U. S. Senate, which put together its own Obamacare repeal act, came within one vote of passing an even more draconian bill. Rather than working with Democrats to fix the problems which were causing health insurance premiums to rise, the Republicans looked only to the Republicans to pass their legislation. Why was Congress so out of touch with the people it was elected to represent?
As a PA resident, I have seen similar gridlock in the legislature of this Commonwealth. Both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans, and our governor is a Democrat. I have been working with a non-partisan group known as Fair Districts PA, an anti-gerrymandering organization which advocates for an amendment to the PA Constitution to take the power of drawing PA State and Congressional Districts away from our partisan legislators and assign the job to a panel of non-partisan citizens. In order to amend our Constitution to permit this, identical bills should be introduced and passed, one each in the PA Senate and PA House, for two consecutive legislative sessions, and then it has to be voted on by PA voters as a special question during an election. The bills have been written and introduced, co-sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, but the House Majority Leader refuses to call the House Bill up for a vote. It is clear that the vast majority of PA citizens are opposed to gerrymandering and would prefer maps drawn up by a non-partisan commission. Why aren’t these bills being called up for a vote?
In similar fashion, the annual PA budget is at a standstill. Although the Governor and the Republican Senate have reached agreement on a balanced budget which would institute a small severance tax on the gas extracted from fracking in PA (PA being the only state from which there is oil or gas extraction which has no such severance tax), but the PA House refuses to even consider an extraction tax. At present this leaves a $1.9 billion hold in the budget. The House majority leader, interviewed on NPR in October 2017, admitted that the House Democrats would vote for an extraction tax, and some of the Republican members would also accept an extraction tax, but the majority of “his caucus” was not agreeable to it, so they were not interested in pursuing that option.
The majority of Americans favor legislation which would allow DACA recipients a path to citizenship, however no bills to accomplish this are on the horizon. On the other hand, the U.S. House of Representatives recently introduced and passed (with mainly Republican votes) an anti-abortion bill that I am certain the general public is not clamoring for. Certainly, many of their “base” is supportive of this, but I am certain that few legislators paused to check with their constituents to see if this was a high priority item with them.
Across the nation, both state legislators have and U. S. Congressmen and Senators been refusing to hold town halls or meeting with numbers of the voters in their districts, fearing an ugly confrontation with constituents who disagree with the positions they have been taken on some of these issues. This all seems to odd. Why wouldn’t they want to hear from their voters? Why would they vote in ways contrary to the wishes or best interests of their constituents?
Legislatures have hearings on issues which everyone agrees upon, like the Equifax data breach, where Senators took turns lambasting the former CEO about what a terrible thing the data breach was. Did we need a hearing to determine this? Or were they just posturing for the public? Looking at their legislative calendar, we see them proudly point to laws that celebrate local heroes or toughen restrictions on people who hurt animals, while the real issues of the day fester. Our entire legislative system has fallen into disarray.
The one theme which runs through all of these illustrations is that party loyalty now trumps state, district or local issues. In as many as 20 U.S. states, the election districts are “rigged” or gerrymandered to yield a majority of “safe” seats to members of one political party or another. This is done through a variety of methods, generally the majority party in a state legislature drawing electoral boundaries using computerized voter data and maps, which “pack” or “crack” groups of voters into voting districts to result in a permanent majority for that party in the legislature, or in the U. S. Congress, following a U. S. Census. For example, the majority Republicans redrew the Wisconsin legislative districts in 2011 (following the 2010 Census), in such a manner as to produce a result that, while Democratic candidates for Wisconsin legislative seats won a clear majority of votes in 2012 and 2014, they were never able to capture more than 39 of Wisconsin’s 99 legislative seats.
As a result, loyalty to the wishes of party leaders or the party “caucus” has become more important than listening to the desires of the voters in that legislator’s district. If a legislator has the temerity to “disobey” the party leader or caucus, they are likely to face a well-financed primary opponent in their next re-election bid. And who votes in the primaries? Across the nation it is the same in “closed primary” states (like PA), where only voters registered as members of that party, often a small minority of voters, mostly the party faithful, end up voting in the primaries, nominating candidates who are on good terms with their party leaders. Voters who are not aligned with either of the major parties are left out of the candidate selection process altogether. CA has chucked this entire system, with entirely open primaries, so that the “top two” vote-getters will face each other in the fall election. They, a progressive state, are the only state in the US with this electoral system.
The big money that is allowed in political campaigns due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 in the Citizens United case. has also exacerbated this problem of candidates not paying attention to local issues, because it seems that all races are “nationalized,” by painting the disfavored candidate as a “tool” of the right-wing or left-wing “radicals.”
A recent poll indicates that the political parties in this country are now more divided on issues than ever before; in earlier days, Senators and Congressmen often worked “across the aisle” to solve this nation’s problems. Nowadays that has almost become a thing of the past. The U.S. Supreme Court has just heard arguments on a case brought by Wisconsin voters, which claims that their politically gerrymandered districts violate the Constitution and threaten our democracy. A similar lawsuit is pending in PA. Something definitely needs to change, if our legislative bodies are to return to caring about local issues and the hopes and dreams of their constituents, rather than a national strategy. Let’s hope we find a way back to the system the writers of our Constitution intended, and away from unyielding partisan positions.