House of Horrors (5 Dec 2005)
If you think the House of Commons is bad, you should take a look at the US House of Representatives. Its procedures are more boring and charmless and the quality of debate not infrequently worse – although a new low was set recently by a Republican representative (no service record) accusing a Democrat (decorated Marine veteran) of cowardice.
The House is also a sink of corruption, gerrymandering and unrepresentative elections.
The House is , relative to the Commons, a sink of corruption. A California congressman, Republican ‘Duke’ Cunnigham, resigned in disgrace last week after the evidence that he had was neck-deep in bribery from defence contractors. One particularly creative bung was that from a contractor who bought a house from Cunningham for $700,000 more than it was worth. And people in Britain complain about the whole Mandelson-Robinson thing… Although the first, Cunningham is not likely to be the last. The most powerful Congressman until recently, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, has had to step down after being indicted for money laundering in connection with a scheme to gerrymander Congressional district boundaries in Texas. DeLay is also a chum of ‘controversial’ lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose generosity to Republican Congressmen has been well known. Another member of the Republican leadership, Robert Ney, has been named in documents relating to Abramoff’s network. Through bullying tactics DeLay enforced a Republican monopoly among the most senior Washington lobbyists. Politics became a mixture of power-broking, mafia-style shakedowns and illicit cash.
As well as being tainted by corruption, the House Republican majority rests on gerrymandering. The Democrats narrowly won the popular vote for the House in 2004, with a 0.3% lead over the Republicans and a 2.5% swing since 2002, but the Republicans slightly increased their majority. The biggest contributor to this was the gerrymandering of the Texas seats, itself a result of a flow of money extorted from contributors by DeLay and his allies. The Democrats need a substantial national lead in order to recapture the House, or sweeping success in the very narrow field of truly competitive districts.
In a system where the balance between the parties is so close, and politics so brutal, this is a pretty inevitable consequence of letting politicians (state legislatures) draw the boundary lines. Those for Michigan and Pennsylvania are laughably biased to Republicans. The few states that do use impartial commissions are a minority, and two initiatives (California and Ohio) to take the power away from politicians failed last month. The majority in California (where the Democrats drew a biased map before 2002) saw no reason to disarm their gerrymandering potential, on the reasonable basis that Texas wasn’t going to be copying them any time soon. A redistricting reform would need a national approach, but it is hard to envisage such an agreement.
Gerrymandering is an increasingly sophisticated business, with specialist software and consultants in business to draw the most partisan boundaries possible. This is one aspect of the debate in Britain that worries me – are the Conservatives who propound equalisation in size deliberately or inadvertently opening the door to such abuses? In many states boundaries have produced safe, uncompetitive districts for both parties. Analysts estimate that of the 435 House seats, only about 27 are competitive. The rest are lopsided victories for one side or another, because of the basic partisan complexion of the district and the advantages of incumbency in terms of profile and, all-importantly, fundraising. In some areas American democracy is dying on its feet – in 2004 36 Republicans and 28 Democrats were unopposed by the other major party.
The electoral rules in many states make it extremely complicated for any third parties to even get registered and on the ballot – however unsatisfactory the Congressional Republicans or Democrats are, it is virtually impossible to get anyone else because of these high legal barriers to entry and of course the First Past the Post electoral system. Although most people dislike politicians as a species, and Congressmen in particular, there is a Soviet-style incumbent re-election rate of 98%.
So, to recap. You get into power and hustle money from sleazy lobbyists. This money serves to scare off potential competitors from running against you. If you do this well enough, you can even ensure that there is no contested election. The money can also be diverted to help your friends get control over the state legislature and tilt the system even further in your favour. If the voters don’t like it, tough… the system is so rigged that there is very little they can do about it, even if your opponents win the national popular vote.
I’ll tell you about the Senate tomorrow. It’s even more peculiar.