An odd bit of early American history is how the size of a county was determined in the United States in the late 1700s. It was measured by how far an ordinary man could ride his horse out and back home in the same day. That made good sense then because, for an executive to manage his county’s affairs and be a family man, that was the only way. This, otherwise irrelevant but intriguing fact, dramatizes how different our society has become in handling the information that drives and informs our lives.
Remember that at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the basic structure of our governance process was laid down in a context very different from today’s world. The fundamental idea was a three-part system: the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. That was the easy part. Then there were the all-important legislative arrangements, where citizens could rub shoulders with their elected representatives.
Having just broken away from a despot King of England, the American public desperately wanted a truly representative government. A two-house system was finally agreed on. One was to be a small body of more senior citizens to serve for long terms to give stability and a longer perspective. The other was to be a larger body, each of whose members would represent only about half a million constituents and thus would feel quickly and closely the voices and pulse of their districts.
The Senate was given six-year terms with one third of the senators to be selected every two years. (Note not elected. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that all Senators were elected by popular vote in their states. Previously they were selected by their state legislatures and governors.)
From the beginning of the nation the whole House of Representatives was the only body at the national level that stood for general reelection by all the citizens of each congressional district every two years. The intended result was to quickly reflect the broadest electorate sentiment into the national political process.
Then an unexpected thing crept into the system early in the 19th century. There was a shrewd politician from Massachusetts named Gerry — hence came the word gerrymandering — who dreamt up the idea of fiddling with the boundaries of congressional districts to favor political aims and interests, a practice that became very popular. Over time the process has evolved to the point that today about 80 percent of the 435 House seats have ‘designer’ districts, which favor one party or the other, generally in about a 60/40 ratio.
As it does take two to tango, both parties have played that game vigorously, with tacit reciprocal agreements to protect their beloved status quo. The result is that it takes a rare and virtual political earthquake — sudden or slow — for the House to shift between which party has control in sync with public sentiment.
All of this brings us to today. This fall’s election reelected the Democratic president strongly; the Senate Democrats increased their majority by three seats (despite the fact that fewer Republican seats were in play); yet, the House remained strongly in the hands of the Republican Party.
That fact suggests that the Senate, despite its longer terms, has become the body most reflective, at the moment at least, of changing public sentiment. And, here is the surprising fact: Across the whole country for the House of Representatives more votes were cast for Democratic candidates than Republican. In a reasonably ‘districted’ and truly representative democracy, ex-Mr. Gerry’s devious genius, that was not supposed to be the way it works.
The result is that at a time when we already have a badly stalled and congealed political process, the people’s will in the House of Representatives has been largely thwarted and might seriously interfere with solving today’s very pressing fiscal problems.
There have been several efforts in recent years to correct this problem. So far they have mostly foundered in the quicksand of historical precedent and political bickering among the parties in the state legislatures, which hold the power to draw district boundaries. Despite that resistance a few states have created bipartisan, non-political commissions that have the final say on their boundaries, and some small steps have been taken in the right direction. That suggests a way ahead, but presently does not show much life.
The significance of the failure in this last election to properly reflect the people’s will in the House of Representatives hopefully will bring more attention to the important need to attend to the basic political problems of districting, as well as the Siamese-twin problem of campaign finance reform.
Those two crucial issues must get moved up on our national agenda in the next four years and it would be best if they are dealt with together.