Wiping moderates off the political map

  • By U.S. Rep. John Barrow Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, May 18, 2012 11:56am
  • OpinionCommentary

Journalists have reported for at least the past year and a half on the so-called end of the moderate in Congress. I’ll be the first to admit that there are fewer moderate members of Congress than there were in the last Congress. And after Election Day, there may be fewer still.

But that’s not because there are fewer moderate voters in the United States. It’s because moderate voters are being drawn into extremely partisan districts, where moderate candidates can run but cannot win.

Every 10 years state legislatures redraw their U.S. House districts to conform to population changes. State legislators are really good at drawing districts that guarantee a win for the party in charge. Unfortunately, the easiest way to guarantee that is by ensuring an extremely partisan candidate will win the district.

The result is the disappearance of competitive districts where candidates must earn the support of a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents. In the growing number of “safe” districts in our nation, a representative must earn the approval of voters from just one party. One of the clearest examples of this came in 2003, when the Texas government redrew district lines just two years after a court-approved map had been created. Under the new maps, seven Democrats either lost, switched parties or didn’t bother to run for reelection.

More recently, the Virginia redistricting process last year shows how districts are changed to protect incumbents by increasing partisanship. According to Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index, eight of Virginia’s proposed districts are more partisan than the current districts; three of the new districts have the same rate of partisanship. And not a single newly drawn district would be more competitive.

Forty years ago, when I was an intern on Capitol Hill, about half of congressional districts were genuinely competitive. Today, only about 10 percent of House races on Cook Political Report are listed as “toss-ups” or “lean” to one party.

Put another way, just over 10 percent of the American people’s representatives in the House are rewarded for practicing the politics of cooperation, while almost 90 percent are rewarded for practicing the politics of confrontation.

That’s the difference between the Congresses we used to have — that used to be able to deal with big problems — and the Congress we have today.

Even though the current political lines are drawn to diminish the choices of reasonable, pragmatic voters, I see a way out of this mess. State-level efforts throughout the country, most notably in California, seek to take the partisanship out of the redistricting process by establishing nonpartisan commissions to draw district lines to represent the will of the people — not just that of the major political parties.

Most Americans are reasonable, pragmatic people who are more concerned with productivity than partisanship. The American people want those of us in Washington to accomplish the same basic goals: Stop spending more money than we take in. Keep the promises we have made to veterans and seniors. Help people provide for and educate their families. And keep all Americans safe.

If our nation is going to get what the majority wants, people have to have a way of voting for it. But we’ll never get what we want if the districts our representatives run in have been rigged so as to produce leaders who would rather fight than cooperate.

U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat, represents Georgia’s 12th District and is a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition.

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