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Outflanking Democrats on gerrymandering

By Bruce Walker
web posted May 26, 2003

The recent retreat of Texas Democrat legislators to Oklahoma as a way of frustrating Republican attempts to redistrict by legislative, rather than judicial, action is predictable sleaziness. Consider some of the actions Democrats have taken in the last year to increase their power.

Gary Condit, who had at least hampered a murder investigation and misled the distraught family of Chandra Levy, was promised support by Dick Gephardt if Condit won the Democrat nomination again in his congressional district.

Robert Torrecelli, mired in scandal, was unopposed in the Democrat primary. His party only worried when he looked like he might lose reelection. No one seemed to worry that if Torrecelli had been ahead in the polls that a very shady character would serve six more years in the Senate.

When Paul Wellstone died, his funeral was turned into a free commercial for the Democrat Party in Minnesota, with crass political interests so patently obvious that it rebounded to the benefit of Republicans across the board in that state.

This unquenchable thirst for power has led Democrats to always contort congressional districts to elect as many Democrats as possible, regardless of what the people wanted. Republican gains in 2002 were largely a consequence of ending this grotesque gerrymandering or reversing the process to maximize the number of Republican House members.

Majority Leader DeLay, who knows how to fight back, almost added another four or five House seats to the Republican side through a gerrymandering plan that reversed the judicial confirmation of earlier legislative gerrymandering. It was worth a shot, but now Republicans should switch tactics.

Democrats who fled across the Red River made gerrymandering a moral issue as well as a political issue. Now, for the first time in a century, Democrats have determined that gerrymandering is wrong. This gives Republicans a golden opportunity.

Recall when Republicans gained the House of Representatives after the 1994 election? The very first day of session, House Republicans passed one procedural or administrative reform after another. These reforms had the practical effect of weakening the power of their own Republican majority in the House.

But it was the right thing to do, and the reforms all passed. In fact, the reforms - which Democrats themselves could have enacted on any legislative day in the prior forty years - received the overwhelming support of House Democrats as well as House Republicans. These votes demonstrated just how cynical House Democrats had been when in power.

Republicans ought to take the same approach with gerrymandering. Most Americans, probably most Leftist pundits, assume that gerrymandering is a vice which only judges can correct. That is historically incorrect. In the 19th Century, when Republicans controlled the federal government, Congress passed a law requiring that congressional districts be "compact, contiguous and as nearly equal as practicable in population."

This statute was passed again, and it remained federal law until the Supreme Court under Franklin Roosevelt interpreted the last enactment of the statute as not prohibiting gerrymandering (ironically, the case came out of Mississippi - a state which at that time did not have a single state or federal election official who was not a Democrat). This Supreme Court decision did not say Congress could not outlaw gerrymandering and it has never taken that position on the issue.

Now, while attention is focused on gerrymandering and while Democrats are whining about Republican gerrymandering, President Bush should propose a federal statute very similar to what Republicans enacted over a century ago. He should be joined in this by the entire Republican congressional leadership.

What would Democrats do? If they supported the legislation, then gerrymandering - which had been a principal tool in keeping Democrats with an unbreakable majority for decades - will be illegal and would be recognized as politically unprincipled. Congressional races would become much more competitive, and the luxurious incumbency that produces jaded federal legislators would vanish.

If Democrats support this reform, it would infuriate those minority groups who depend upon drawing congressional districts that are certain to elect a black or a Hispanic to Congress. Republicans like J.C. Watts have demonstrated that good black candidates can be elected from overwhelmingly white congressional districts, but Maxine Waters does not want a district that "looks like America."

And Democrats would also face the fair jibe that this was precisely like the 1995 procedural reforms in the House of Representatives: Democrats agreed that outlawing gerrymandering was a good thing, but during the many decades in which they ran Congress, Democrats never did anything to address the problem.

If Democrats opposed the legislation, then Republicans could immediately begin to hammer away at Democrats for opposing reforms that they themselves have sought and of trying to make congressional races as uncompetitive as possible.

This would provide Republicans with an effective campaign issue against Democrats, without costing Republicans anything at all. Today, Republicans benefit at least as much from the current system of gerrymandering as Democrats. This would also reinforce the image of Democrats as corrupt.

The reform could even go much farther than just to require that congressional districts be rationally drawn. Under Article IV of the Constitution, Congress could require that all legislative districts be compact, contiguous and reasonable. This would affect state legislative districts, municipal council boundaries and other political subdivisions.

This would be perceived, quite properly, as a major reform of the political system. And if the Republicans pushed this, it would leave Democrats in a Catch-22 situation. If Democrats say this is a bad idea, then they will be seen as sleazy; if Democrats say that this is a great idea, then Republicans can say "Why did Democrats not do this when they had power?'
This approach is precisely how conservative victories can become policies and politics that transform the nation for the better. Democrats want a powerful, remote and relentless government, but without power such a government does them little good.

Republicans must play this game like the game of Chess. Move the knight so that it forks a queen and a rook: compel Democrats to either be gerrymandered into irrelevance or to oppose gerrymandering. On gerrymandering, like on other key issues, Republicans must make Democrats oppose lifetime incumbency and big government or accept that these will hurt and not help Democrats to reacquire power.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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