Congress doesn’t talk to people but to “constituencies”

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I heard an interesting comment this morning in a discussion about the debt ceiling debate. “Congressmen don’t talk to the ‘people’ anymore,” this person said. “They talk with their constituencies, and that’s a far different thing.” Here’s what she meant:

Since 1929, when the Reapportionment Act of 1929 was adopted, the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives has been capped at 435. After each census, the nation determines how those 435 seats will be allocated, state by state. So if one state has grown substantially and another has shrunk, the first state adds seats while the second loses them. Here are the winners and losers from the 2010 census:

Congressional seats - winners and losers

Gain FourGain TwoGain OneLose OneLose Two
TexasFloridaArizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, WashingtonIllinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, PennsylvaniaNew York, Ohio

The fun begins when the districts are redrawn to account for the seats that are lost or gained. Increasingly, politicians draw the new maps, and they draw them in such a way that a seat is much more likely to go to a Republican or a Democrat, depending on who’s in power at the time. You know the word for such practices; it’s called gerrymandering.

In effect, the politicians increasingly are choosing their voters instead of the voters choosing the politicians. And when John Boehner says something like, “I’ve talked to my constituents, and I know the American voter doesn’t want to raise taxes on job creators (read: wealthy Americans),” what’s really happened is that he’s hearing what he wants to hear because he has had a hand in creating his district in his own image.

So how do you fix a problem like this? In Florida, voters decided last year to pass legislation to stop gerrymandering. Even so, it appears to be happening, and engaged voters might have to go to court to stop the practice.

It would seem fair, after a state’s allocation of representatives is determined, to try to make the districts follow more or less natural boundaries and to resemble basic shapes like rectangles instead of the screwball shapes we often see today.

If we draw districts that simply marry people of like minds together, politicians will never have to face the reality of conflicting points of view in society. And as long as they represent only people of like minds, they never will feel the need to compromise to keep faith with a diverse constituency. The longer we travel down that road, the more fragmented we will become, until we finally break apart. I don’t think that’s the path our founding fathers envisioned.

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