Understanding the Mess (and Why it May not Get Better Anytime Soon)
The situation we currently find oursevles in is very much driven by structural issues.
One of the truly frustrating facts about the current predicament in Washington is that many of the actors who are actively holding the government hostage are from safe districts and are worried not about re-election, but re-nomination. And since primary battles are often controlled by my more extreme factions of a given political party, this produces politicians not especially concerned with moderation and compromise.
Note the following from the Cook Political Report (with a hat tip to friend and political scientist Michael Bailey):
Over 3/4ths (77.2%) of the House hails from safe districts. Further, Republicans have a distinct advantage. As Cook notes:
This suggests that in a “neutral” year, Democrats could win just as many popular votes for House as the GOP and still fall more than two dozen seats shy of a majority.
Given that the Tea Party faction of the GOP has actively pursued a strategy of attacking incumbents in primaries, the behavior of many in Congress starts to make a bit more sense. The structure of the districts has any number of members of Congress frightened for their seats. Clearly this a major driver of Speaker Boehner’s inability to fashion a solution in the House.
Further, the truly safe nature of some of these districts leads many of these Representatives to, reasonably, act to represent what they see as the interests of their districts. These members, who seem to be the driving force in the GOP caucus at the moment, were dubbed by Charles Krauthammer, as the “suicide caucus” and were the subject of recent piece by Ryan Lizza:
On August 21st, Congressman Mark Meadows sent a letter to John Boehner.
“Since most of the citizens we represent believe that ObamaCare should never go into effect,” the letter said, “we urge you to affirmatively de-fund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare in any relevant appropriations bill brought to the House floor in the 113th Congress, including any continuing appropriations bill.”
And this is the strategy that is currently prevailing in Washington.
Here’s a map of the districts from whence come these 80:
And here is some information about this group:
As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline.
These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population.
Most of the members of the suicide caucus have districts very similar to Meadows’s. While the most salient demographic fact about America is that it is becoming more diverse, Republican districts actually became less diverse in 2012. According to figures compiled by The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, a leading expert on House demographics who provided me with most of the raw data I’ve used here, the average House Republican district became two percentage points more white in 2012.
The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent. The districts also have slightly lower levels of education (twenty-five per cent of the population in suicide districts have college degrees, while that number is twenty-nine per cent for the average district).
Given the make up of these districts, these 80 are acting rationally. Of course, the question could be asked if they ought not look to their broader responsibility to the country at large. One does wonder why the rest of the caucus is kowtowing to these demands, but the primary threats noted above clearly come into play under those scenarios. Boehner clearly fears for his job as Speaker.
I have noted this before, but I will note it again: democracy needs competition, and we lack competitive elections in the vast majority of our districts, and this is at least part of the problem on display in DC at the moment. Further, the very structure of our system is creating a situation in which the House of Representatives is doing a very lousy job of representing the actual interests of the country.
A broad question for consideration: is it healthy that 77.2% of of the seats in the House are currently “safe” seats? What does that say about the quality of democracy and of representation in that body?
The bottom line is that the Republican Party in particular does not currently have sufficient incentives to govern, and that is not good for the country.