By Bruce Walker
One of the greatest delights of the Tea Party is disdain for traditional partisan affiliations. The grand theme of the movement is reduction: cut taxes, reduce deficits, limit regulation, and remove the concentration of power in Washington which creates a Never-Never Land for entrenched politicians of both political parties. In fact, the heart of many Tea Party concerns is the plague of unaccountable and self-serving elected officials in Washington. What is true in our nation's capital is true, on a smaller scale, in our state capitals.
Soon after the November elections, legislators all over the nation will engage in one of the most destructive and demoralizing crimes against representative government. When the Census figures are in, state legislatures will begin to redraw congressional and state legislative districts to make these legislative districts as near to equal in population as practicable. In most states, this will be a process of protecting incumbents, especially incumbents whose party controls the state legislature. By letter, these politicians choose their voters.
Gerrymandering helps insure that members of the House of Representatives and members of state legislatures do not really need to worry much about what voters think. Ominously for Americans who want their elected officials to listen to them, very sophisticated computer software almost allows the gnomes who redraw legislative boundaries to decide elections in many districts by the very careful selection of which voters will be in which politician's district. This is great if we want government that ignores us, filled with self-important nabobs who feel safe passing up town halls and debates, but the situation is awful for Americans who want politicians to listen to them.
Democrats have historically profited more from gerrymandering than Republicans, but the two political parties often collude to draw districts which protect incumbents of both parties. Gerrymandering is a perfect example of bloated corruption in American government today. Ending gerrymandering is not hard. Congress could pass a very simple statute like this: "All legislative districts in the United States shall be drawn compact, contiguous, and as nearly as possible along existing county or parish borders." Actually, Republicans in Congress a century ago did pass federal laws banning gerrymandering, and federal courts did not find any impediment to that (Democrats, however, opposed this reform, and it ended in the 1930s).
The Tea Party should push Congress to adopt this very direct and patently good law early in the next session -- and for several reasons. First, enactment of this law would forever change American politics for the better. Abolishing gerrymandering makes it very difficult for politicians to keep winning elections without real thought of defeat. Second, embracing this issue will place the Tea Party squarely in the ranks of the "good government" groups. Those who are unsure about the Tea Party would find in its support for this reform a very positive message about what the Tea Party wants for America.
Finally, supporting a federal bill to abolish all gerrymandering will put Barack Obama in a very tough situation. He has spoken piously about the problem of politicians choosing their voters. But Barack Obama, the Illinois State Senator, did just that, and the congressional and state legislative districts which he helped draw as a member of the Illinois State Legislature are about as offensive as any state in the nation. This includes Illinois congressional districts, Illinois state legislative districts, and even Chicago ward districts. Compare this crazy quilt with the serene and simple districts of neighboring Iowa. If the Tea Party pushed Congress to pass a law banning gerrymandering, anyone who opposed the bill would be supporting this old evil. So what would Obama do? If he were to support the bill, then he would infuriate many Democrat officeholders. If he were to oppose the bill, he would expose himself as just another corrupt Chicago politician.
Is ending gerrymandering the sort of issue which would capture the people's attention? Gerrymandering is for political wonks...except once every ten years, when it stirs up some real dust. Next year, and only next year in this decade, state legislative, congressional, and city council districts are all going to be redrawn. Come next year, redistricting will be a very hot topic, as it is every ten years. That is exactly why the Tea Party should push this hard as soon as the new Congress takes office. See who favors banishing this tool of political insiders and who supports letting politicians choose their voters. That division will clarify who really wants to reform American government and who loves the smoke-filled rooms of hidden power.