Why is there so much gridlock in Washington? Why is Congress so messed up?
“There are several explanations really. But the most compelling, the most impactful, the one that we have the most control over but nobody’s focused on or paying much attention to, is how we have rigged the political process in such a fashion that the extreme points of view in this country are overrepresented in Congress,” U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., told the Rotary Club of Statesboro during its weekly meeting Monday at Forest Heights Country Club. “And the vast moderate majority in the middle of this country is underrepresented in Congress.
Barrow, the last white Democratic congressman in the Deep South, identifies with those moderates, as demonstrated by his voting record. He voted against passing the Affordable Care Act into law, but also voted against repealing it. He has voted with Democrats sometimes — for example, he voted June 10 with nearly every other Democrat against a bill that would prohibit funds from being used to implement a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plan. That bill passed the House with nearly unanimous Republican support, according to Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that tracks politicians’ voting records.
He sometimes votes with Republicans. For example, on July 16, he was one of a handful of Democrats who sided with nearly all GOP representatives to pass a bill that would prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from providing bonuses to its employees, according to Project Vote Smart.
Rise in partisanship
Since Republicans gained control of the Georgia Senate and governor’s office after the 2002 elections, and the state House after the 2004 elections, the GOP has had the chance to redraw district lines in its favor. Barrow has been a target of Republicans several times, having been drawn out of the 12th Congressional District twice and forced to move to stay in the reconfigured district.
Republicans see this year as their best chance yet at unseating Barrow, with Augusta construction contractor Rick W. Allen winning a majority in a five-way race in the May primary, avoiding a bruising runoff that he lost to Lee Anderson in 2012. Barrow defeated Anderson with relative ease, but Allen is seen as having more support, and the 12th District leans more Republican since being redrawn before the 2012 election cycle.
In talking to the Statesboro Rotary Club, Barrow said that in the 1970s and 1980s, about half the congressional districts voted with the majority of the country in the presidential elections — Richard Nixon in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980. But today, those swing districts have been reduced to roughly less than 10 percent, and the vast majority of congressional districts now vote reliably with one party or the other. That means today, the vast majority of elected congressional representatives are rewarded for practicing ideological partisanship rather than cooperation, Barrow said, leading to the stalemate that has occurred so often on Capitol Hill in recent years.
Data from voteview.com, a website started in 1995 at Carnegie-Mellon University and now affiliated with the University of Georgia, Republicans in Congress have voted more conservatively now than in any other congressional session since 1879. Democrats have voted more liberally now than at any time since 1921. And the liberal-conservative gap between the two parties is wider than it has ever been since 1879, which is how far back voteview.com’s data goes.
Technology has allowed both parties — whichever one is in control in any given state — to draw districts in such a way as to maximize their partisan advantage, Barrow said. He cited Ohio as an example. The Buckeye State voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential eletions, yet 80 percent of the congressional members are Republican, thanks to GOP control over the district lines.
“It’s done that way everywhere. No party is innocent. Both parties are guilty,” Barrow said. “In fact, when you talk with people about this, get in the weeds with them, they say, ‘We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to do it wherever we’re in charge because the other side is doing it wherever they’re in charge.’ The Democrats in Illinois say, “We’ve got no choice but to do this because the R’s in Ohio are doing it to us over there.’”
Is there a solution? Yes, Barrow said, but the goal when lines are redrawn to account for population changes has to be to minimize — not maximize — partisanship. He cited Iowa as a state that has had a nonpartisan reapportionment process for several decades.
And it’s catching on, he added, “in states as different as Florida and California.” Currently, Florida is controlled by Republicans, and California by Democrats.
If those states and other larger ones do adopt nonpartisan district drawing, Barrow said, there might be pressure to adopt a federal law requiring all states to reduce partisanship in their redistricting processes.
“In both cases (Florida and California), the voters in those states have risen up and taken this process away from the partisan politicians and created a nonpartisan standard to go by,” Barrow said. “And they are fed up with the choices they are being offered by folks who are drawing the districts to match the agenda of the parties. Folks would rather have a system where the people choose their representatives, rather than the representatives choosing their voters.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.