By Paolo von Schirach
July 26, 2011
WASHINGTON – What is the connection between congressional redistricting guaranteeing “safe” districts to both Democrats and Republicans and the current impasse between the parties on the debt ceiling, spending cuts and new taxes? What? Shaping and boundaries of House districts are the root causes of the angry fighting between the two parties? Well, yes, if one attributes the uncompromising positions of both parties to the more radicalised positions of large numbers of House members. And positions are more intransigent because House members these days fear not the voters in general but angry militants within their parties who may stage a primary challenge against members who are willing to compromise with the other party.
It goes like this. Like it or not, redistricting is about creating “safe” districts for both parties. This has been and is a clever way to elude real democratic debate and appropriate accountability to the voters during the campaigns. By creating new boundaries designed to include mostly voters who, by significant majorities, support one party or the other, incumbents have an inherent advantage. The chances that they would lose an election, in ordinary times, are slim. And so, House members who have to run every two years can feel a bit more relaxed. As long a they deliver to their party loyalists who are also the majority of the voters in their districts, they have little to fear on elections day.
Safe districts allowed incumbents some flexibility and made them willing to compromise
At least this was the conventional wisdom until a few years ago. Clearly the emerging picture was bad for American democracy, as it essentially eliminated the need for the member to defend his record, while it made it virtually impossible for a challenger of the other party to defeat an incumbent routinely re-elected with solid 60-65% majorities. One of the advantages of “safe” districts was that incumbents, almost certain of re-election, had a certain degree of wiggle room in dealing with the other party in Congress when it came to compromises on legislation.
Now we have primary challenges
But now this comfortable set up does not work any more, especially within the Republican Party. True enough, the districts are still safe for the party. But the incumbent is now extremely vulnerable to a primary challenge from within his/her party. Activists within the party follow politics and agitate against any incumbent who appeared too eager to compromise. When this happens, and the 2010 elections illustrate this, the party activists, often inspired by the Tea Party, are quick to field a challenger running against the incumbent in the party primary.
As primaries are mostly decided by a relatively small number of party members, an organised rebellion from within, led by very few, can cost the incumbent the nomination and therefore the seat. Therefore, whatever his/her actual convictions, incumbents are ”forced” to keep the more radical “purists” on their side, even though they are not actually the majority of their voters. This translates into forced adherence to ideological orthodoxy dictated by few. House members have to adhere to the most extreme positions espoused bt the most radical rank and file party members who vote in the primaries.
Members who compromise to reach agreements face primary challenges
And, almost by definition, this ideological rigidity means that the old wiggle room for compromise with the other party in Congress disappeared. While there is much to gain for the Nation by political compromises that allow something to “get done” in the Congress, politically, a “compromiser” will probably suffer at the hands of the watchful radicals who will label him a sell out (“RINO”: Republican In Name Only), and field a challenger to run against him/her in the primary. Regrettably, politicians seem to be more sensitive to the mood of their most vocal constituents than to the needs of the Nation.
No new taxes pledge for Republicans
Case in point, in order to gain points with the fiscal conservatives among their party members, an inordinate numbers of Republicans signed a pledge whereby they would vote “no” to any legislation including tax increases. This is totally crazy. I would understand a stated preference against tax increases. But a “pledge” is pure ideological posturing that, however, ties the hands of the law makers. If they break the pledge, they are most likely toast and immediately vulnerable to attacks and retaliatory action via a primary challenge from the purists within the Republican Party.
Fear of primary challenges determines uncompromising stance
Now you can see how the shifting of the political focus from a general election in which large numbers play a role to a primary challenge decided by relatively few, organised people has bearing. Because of this, now we have an uncompromising impasse between Republicans and Democrats on the conditionalities that they want attached to a “yes” vote on raising the debt ceiling. The Republicans do not want any tax increase to be part of any package, even one with substantial spending cuts.
The Democrats, instead, citing fairness, are adamant that any agreement must include at least some additional taxes for the rich. It is quite obvious that both sides are holding fast to ideological, pre-packaged positions that are not truly substantive. Hence no compromise and continuing impasse that prevents agreement on raising the debt ceiling.
The notion that the US can quickly regain a better fiscal posture with spending cuts alone is a bit crazy. In a weak economy, a sudden contraction of public spending and employment induced by such spending is not going to do much for jobs and growth. On the other hand, by insisting that rich people have to pay more the Democrats are also posturing. You can squeeze the billionaires and the private jet owners all you want, but you are not going to get trillions in additional revenue.
America needs a “Grand Bargain” on spending reform
Ideally, America would need a “Grand Bargain” creating a credible scenario whereby it would be absolutely clear to all observers that in the medium and long term the country would start reducing its overall spending. That said, in order to achieve substantial spending cuts America would need a credible plan to reform entitlements, so that their cost trajectory would finally start going down. In all this, it would be extremely helpful to have tax reform that would include real tax simplification. It would be not only wise but economically helpful to eliminate the jungle of special provisions, exemptions and ad hoc measures that distort economic activities while protecting sectors.
No way to get anything major in this climate
While all this would be nice, anybody can see that, in order to achieve any of this, one needs political compromise on a very large scale. But in this ideologically laden environment, where even sitting down with the other side may be construed as suspect behavior, the chances of a broad, long range agreement are nihil.
So, let’s scale down our ambitions. We are not going to get a big thing out of these negotiations on raising the debt ceiling. The best that we can aspire to is some kind of a face saving deal that simply allows the Government to borrow some money for another year, or may be until the next elections in November 2012.
A clear mandate for either party in 2012?
Many hope that, with Republican and Democratic positions on spending and taxes clearly drawn, it will be up to the voters to choose which recipe they like and make a choice. This way, with a real electoral mandate, the winners will be able to legislate according to their principles. This may look good on paper. But it hardly ever happens this way. The fact that the parties offer two almost diametrically opposed philosophies of government is no predictor that the voters will overwhelmingly go for one or the other.
Current system gives too much power to vocal fringes within parties
So, bottom line is that we are stuck with a system that gives too much weight to radical organised groups within the two parties that are driven by ideology rather than old fashioned pragmatism. This is a real problem for a government system of divided powers that is predicated on compromise to get anything done. Therefore, when all is said and and done, eliminating the current system of congressional re-districting that shifts the real political fight to the primaries decided by few may help a bit in freeing up the incumbents from the primary challenges and stop the disproportionate influence of organised militant minorities on the entire political system.
Most Americans are non ideological centrists
The irony in a system dominated by party activists is that a sizable number of Americans are independents and centrists with no special ideological affiliation. The current system silences their voices, as they normally do not participate in the primary process. Political activism is good. But when it turns into a virtual hijacking of the entire political process, it is very worrisome.
Given the way the system is currently designed, right now, well organised but intransigent minorities that reject dialogue have too much influence. And, as the uncompromising positions on spending cuts demonstrates, the impact is gridlock and eventually a dysfunctional, paralysed system.