Washington is broken.
Those three words may have become the most common description of the sad state of affairs in our nation’s capital. But they don’t begin to capture the frustration, anger and disgust that Americans feel when they watch our Congress careen from one manufactured crisis to another. The inhabitants of Capitol Hill are seemingly unaware of the chaos they have created, and appear unable to develop real long-term solutions for fixing the mess that we find ourselves in.
The most recent government shutdown was only the culmination of months of infighting and impasse. The central representative body in the world’s greatest democracy now regularly grinds to a standstill over issues that just a few years ago would have been resolved in principled compromise crafted by political combatants who knew the limits of their own partisanship. In times past, Congress was comprised of statesmen and women who didn’t create problems - they solved them.
But in today’s Washington, that notion seems like a quaint artifact of the past.
How did this come to be?
And what, if anything, can we do to fix it?
While there are many factors that contribute to our democracy’s current dysfunction, it’s largely the synergy of the most recent round of gerrymandering and the rise of the Tea Party that has torn our political system loose from its moorings.
Gerrymandering – the practice of redrawing political boundaries to enhance the power of one political party at the expense of another – is nearly as old as our American democracy. But what makes it so pernicious today is that it has allowed a well-financed ideological minority to gain undue influence in the Republican Party and then use that power to prevent Congress from reaching agreement on issues as wide-ranging as immigration policy, entitlement reform and climate change.
How? Because in districts that are noncompetitive – those clearly dominated by one political party – the primary election becomes the only meaningful election. Most moderate voters in both parties skip primaries. The ideologically inclined voters who do show up, perhaps 15 percent of those registered, call the tune. That does not reflect the interests of the vast majority of the electorate.
Gerrymandering has always been at odds with our democratic values. Americans believe that voters should pick their representatives in free elections. Gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters as they – or their friends in state legislatures - draw their districts.
And as our elected leaders are consistently unable to come to agreement, it now threatens the body politic itself.
Yes, our government is broken. And politicians elected in gerrymandered districts have no incentive to fix the system that elected them in the first place. But voters do. And we can!
Given the limited opportunities for legal recourse, the only way to give voters a meaningful voice in how districts are drawn is to take the redistricting authority away from the Legislature and give it to an independent, non-partisan reapportionment commission.
Until that reform occurs, voters will have limited ability to influence a process that is driven primarily by partisanship and politics at the expense of us all.
Jocelyn Benson is Dean of the Wayne State University Law School and the 2010 Democratic candidate for Secretary of State. Joe Schwarz is a former Republican member of Congress, a former long-time Michigan legislator, and a practicing physician in Battle Creek.