Jayne: Despite frustration, Congress has no reason to change

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I didn't intend to turn this into "Brian Baird: The Miniseries." After all, I wrote about the former U.S. representative last week, and that's normally a big enough dose of anything that has to do with Congress.

But when Baird and I spoke recently, one of the tangents of the conversation stuck with me. That tangent has seemed particularly relevant this week as portions of the federal government have shut down because of churlishness among lawmakers. Baird and I had been talking about Obamacare, and that inevitably segued into a discussion about the intransigence that marks modern-day politics.

"We really have to find a way to end gerrymandering," Baird said. "It tends to perpetuate extremism."

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing up electoral districts with the purpose of gaining political advantage. If the party in power in a particular state is wily enough, it can ensure a majority among the state's congressional representatives and, perhaps more important, among the state's legislators.

Lump, say, all the likely Democratic voters into one district, and maybe Republicans can ensure that two neighboring districts will go their way. The result is a district of like-minded individuals — for both parties.

"You don't have to deal with people in your district who have a diversity of opinion," Baird said. "I have seen districts that are shaped like a snake on LSD."

Baird, who from 1999-2011 represented Washington's 3rd Congressional District, which includes Clark County, had a relatively diverse constituency. When the Democrat decided to not seek re-election in 2010, his seat was won by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler.

That 2010 election, when Republicans took control of the House, served as a harbinger of the rancor that has followed in Washington, D.C. While Republicans maintained control in 2012, winning 234 seats to 201 for Democrats, the minority party drew about 1.4 million more votes in congressional races nationwide, according to a study by Bloomberg News. That is a problem. While conservatives like to chortle that their majority in the House suggests the country is conservative, the fact is that more people in 2012 voted for a Democrat for Congress, more people voted for a Democrat in senatorial races, and more people voted for a Democrat for president.

With voting districts set up to segregate people by party affiliation, the result is representatives bent on catering to their base rather than considering differing opinions.

As Baird said: "There is a subset of people who are convinced they're right. They're putting their ideology ahead of the good of the country. It leads to so much simplistic grandstanding."

Consider the system

That's because representatives — on both sides — don't have to consider any other ideology. That's because they don't have to entertain the notion that they might be wrong, they just have to pander.

"You have to understand you can run on rhetoric," Baird said, "but then you have to govern."

When the 2010 census dictated that Washington would add a 10th congressional district, it forced the state to confront the prospect of gerrymandering. But while most states leave the issue up to the legislature and give an advantage to the party that happens to be in power, Washington relies upon a bipartisan commission to set congressional districts.

That's a good system, but it could be better. Iowa, for example, draws political lines with a computer program that considers population as the only criterion. The result must be approved by the governor and the state assembly, but the process serves to take a little of the politics out of a political issue.

Nationally, the situation has led to drastic partisanship that has much of the country frustrated with the people they elected, yet that doesn't appear likely to change. While Congress' approval rating has hit an all-time low of 10 percent, a vast majority of representatives will be re-elected when voters have their say again in 13 months. The problem, in the minds of voters, is always the other guys' representative. Unless it's the system itself.