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THE NATION | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Close House Races Go the Way of Rotary Phones, Newt Gingrich

April 15, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

In designing the new American government, the founders expected tremors in public opinion to rattle the windows in the House of Representatives before anyplace else. James Madison, in "The Federalist Papers," insisted that of all the government's branches, the House most needed "an immediate dependence on, and intimate sympathy with, the people." To stay attuned to the people, Madison believed House members had to stay accountable to the people, with frequent elections that he considered the only way to ensure that "dependence and sympathy."

Two hundred fifteen years later, House members still stand for election every two years.

They just don't face much risk anymore that they will lose those elections.

Perversely, the House has become the arm of government that is now arguably the most insulated from shifts in the public mood. Throughout the 1990s, almost three-fourths of the 435 House seats never changed hands between the parties, calculates independent political analyst Rhodes Cook. The signs point toward even less turnover in the years ahead. Even this far from election day, it appears that only about four dozen House seats may generate plausible races this year. By this fall, experts on both sides expect the number of truly competitive contests to drop to as few as two dozen.

It's a trend that should have Madison turning in his grave. "It's outrageous," says Mark Gersh, Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a leading liberal political action committee. "The political trends are muted with this many noncompetitive seats, because even if the public wants to express an opinion about what is going on in Congress, they can't. It is really a perversion of democracy."

Partly, the death of competition in the House can be explained by natural causes. In recent years, many of the most competitive seats were held by members caught, in effect, behind enemy lines: Southern Democrats holding seats voting Republican for president, or Northeastern Republicans in the opposite position. As voters have harmonized their votes for president and Congress, many of those legislators have now been replaced with representatives more unambiguously in tune with the district's dominant ideology. That evolution has taken many of those districts out of play.

But far less benign factors have also contributed to the collapse in competition. One is money. In the 2000 election, the average House incumbent raised almost six times as much as his or her opponent. A financial disadvantage isn't always fatal in Senate races because those contests attract enough media attention to let challengers become known, even if they can't match the incumbent's television budget. But House races usually draw less coverage than high school baseball games. That means House challengers without the money to buy advertising are almost always doomed.

Just as important in the muffling of competition has been redistricting. That's the process where states, once every 10 years, redraw the lines of congressional districts after the census maps the new distribution of population.

This year's redistricting is likely to be remembered as a bipartisan monument to back-scratching. In a few states where one party controlled the state legislature and the governorship, it used that leverage to draw maps that will tilt several congressional seats in its direction. Most often, though, the two parties colluded to protect incumbents, creating districts so heavily Republican or Democratic that the other party has little chance of ever taking them.

The most dramatic example is in California. In the 1990s, about one-fifth of the state's congressional districts changed hands between the parties at least once. But Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego, says the state's 53 districts now all lean so heavily toward one side or the other, it's possible none will change partisan control until the next redistricting, 10 years from now.

And California isn't alone. "It is going to be true all over the country," says former Republican National Committee general counsel Benjamin Ginsberg, who consults with state Republican parties on redistricting. "If there are two dozen seats at play in any election [nationwide], it is going to be a lot."

That prospect has several implications, none of them healthy. First it means that absent some major unpredictable event--a recession, a big scandal--there won't be enough truly competitive seats to give either party more than a slim majority in the House. "They are locked into narrow margins," says Ginsberg.

That will make governing tough. Governing will get even tougher as more House members represent seats so safe that they don't have to consider the views of voters outside their own base. That allows--indeed encourages--them to embrace purist ideological positions, which impedes compromise.

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