It’s not often that you find a group of people who would like to purposely and seriously harm their own country’s economy and who have the power to do it. But the U.S. finds itself with a caucus in the House of Representatives that is ostensibly willing to breach the debt ceiling and possibly default on sovereign debt (which the U.S. has never done) in order to win concessions from the White House and congressional Democrats. This isn’t any way to run a government, but the real problem is that these people have any power at all. How did they get elected in the first place, and why is anyone taking them seriously?
The answer comes to us in two parts: the process of redistricting, which occurs once per decade, and the recent erosion of campaign finance restrictions.
After every census, seats in the House of Representatives are shuffled to more equally reflect the nation’s population. And because there are only 435 seats, when one state gains a seat, it comes at the expense of another. Whenever a seat is added or removed, at least some of the other districts in the state must be redrawn. In most states, the legislature appoints a committee made up of members of the majority party to redraw the map. So if you’re the majority party, you get to pick your voters for at least the next 10 years. That has recently allowed Republicans to lock in House seats with unassailable demographic advantages. The Democrats are in no way innocent of gerrymandering districts, but they aren’t the ones acting ridiculously, so we’ll leave them out for now.
Having a House seat that is almost certain to go to your political party leaves an incumbent in a strange position. There is no incentive to compromise, no reason to be moderate and work across the aisle when you don’t have a diverse and moderate constituency. The only challenge that Republican representatives in gerrymandered districts face is from those further on the right. They have to avoid being seen as nonbelievers, lest they face a challenger in the next primary. And those primary challengers are a real threat. The basic way that political ideology works is that the further from the center you are, the more passionate you have to be. There’s just no way to get people fired up for mutually agreeable, sensible budget cuts. And when you’re running a primary campaign, you can use the passion and support of your base to beat the whoever is closer to the center and by definition has a harder time finding vocal and passionate supporters. And these Tea Party challengers are well funded. In a district that is essentially guaranteed to vote Republican, big donors can pick their candidate and bankroll the whole campaign. Best of all, thanks to changing election laws, donors either don’t have to disclose their contributions or don’t have to file paperwork in time for disclosure to matter. It also turns out that the Tea Party utopia of no taxes or regulation would be good for big business, so it’s not hard to see where the funding comes from.
The threat of having to run against a well-funded Tea Party candidate has caused once-sensible Republicans to trip over themselves to support the extreme positions being put forward. The only reason that Tea Party ideas are being taken seriously is that Republicans don’t want to lose their seats. Many of their districts are going to vote Republican no matter what, and they want to be the Republican that gets picked. The only way to do that is to move further and further right of center. And so we’re left with a Tea Party caucus of 49 people who have scared the other 183 members of the Republican Party in the House into following them down the rabbit hole.
We don’t have to live like this, and it wouldn’t even be that hard to fix. There should be hard-and-fast contribution limits and disclosure requirements for money used for political speech, including issue advocacy. We also need to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. Districts should be based on geography, not on getting the most favorable demographics for your party. These aren’t new ideas, but they are notoriously tough to get politicians behind. Getting them to give up power isn’t easy. But when you have politicians picking voters and not vice versa, democracy has gone backward. It’s time to set it straight.
Tom Petri is a junior majoring in management information systems, finance and legal studies. He can be contacted at email@example.com.