The next House speaker, whoever he may be, will almost certainly face crippling mutinies by the 45 Republican rebels who systematically opposed John A. Boehner and ultimately succeeded in pushing him out. Maybe not right away, but eventually, because these ideological insurgents know they can defy their party leadership without fear of punishment from the voters.
How will they get away with it? The answer is gerrymandering. Yes, gerrymandering has been around since the dawn of American politics, but it’s a far different game today, played on a national scale with 21st century software.
In 2009, Republican Party leaders decided to heed Karl Rove, the campaign guru, who told them pragmatically, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”
Following the Rove dictum, the party poured $30 million, mostly raised from corporations, into what it called “RedMap,” a strategy to dominate the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2011 by capturing majority control of as many state legislatures as possible in the 2010 election.
RedMap was a smashing success. In 2010, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats nationwide, giving the GOP control of legislatures in states that held 40% of all House seats, versus Democrats with only 10%. (The rest were under split control.) When it came time for gerrymandering, they ran a precision operation. They used sophisticated software to determine not only which town and which neighborhood should be allotted to which district but which street and which home. In the 2012 election, they saw the fruit of their labor. Republicans came out with a 33-seat majority in the U.S. House, even though they lost the popular vote.
But there was a hitch. The very strategy that cemented the party’s House majority also entrenched the rump faction of anti-government extremists who toppled Boehner and will menace his successor.
So sharply targeted was the 2011 gerrymandering effort that all but two of the 45 anti-Boehner rebels — most of them now organized as the Freedom Caucus — are guaranteed reelection in politically engineered districts that insulate them from Democratic challengers.
Their congressional districts are so stacked in their favor that, in 2014, they beat their Democratic opponents by an average of 38 percentage points. Only two had competitive general election races. Three had such slam-dunk districts that no Democrat even bothered to oppose them.
With protected political monopolies back home, the rebels take little or no political risk and pay no political price for opposing their speaker and adopting extremist positions that bring Congress to a halt.
It matters little that the rebels are junior members of Congress. More than two-thirds were elected in the tea party class of 2010 and the RedMap classes of 2012 and 2014. More than 85% of them come from a GOP-gerrymandered state, which emboldens them.
There is no quick fix to the challenge they pose not only to the next speaker but also to our political system. Choosing a new speaker will neither quell nor placate the uprising. The rebels see their mission as blocking anyone from compromising with Democrats. Nor are they hung up merely on one or two prickly issues, such as defunding Planned Parenthood. The Freedom Caucus has immobilized Congress repeatedly — over funding the Department of Homeland Security, funding the Export-Import Bank and raising the debt ceiling. Twice they have forced the shutdown of the national government, and they will try again.
It is going to take fundamental change to dislodge the gridlock now baked into the system.
California and Arizona have shown the way out by taking the job of redistricting away from politicians in the state legislature and turning it over to independent citizen commissions. And in June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Arizona-California method, giving the green light to citizen-led reform elsewhere.
Other states are also taking action. Seven have already set up independent nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting. In six more states, gerrymandering is under assault in the courts. And in yet another six, either political leaders or citizen groups have mounted campaigns to reduce or eliminate gerrymandering.
Perhaps public shock over Boehner’s downfall will give new impetus to a long-overdue reform movement. Otherwise, these insurgencies will continue to shackle American democracy.
Hedrick Smith, former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, is executive editor of reclaimtheamericandream.org.
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