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.

us-politics-republicans-democratsOne 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:

 

congressdistricts_final-01.png

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.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Thank you, Steven. Highly relevant.

    The problem is that solutions don’t require citizen engagement (as suggested by a recent CSM editorial) so much as Constitutional amendment. We need more, smaller districts and legal barriers to gerrymandering. And those will demand Constitutional amendment.

    Which is another way of saying that it will require heroic efforts. Which is another way of saying it’s not likely to happen.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Excellent post.
    Of course a strong Speaker wouldn’t knuckle under to this crap.
    I have a hard time imagining LBJ or Tip O’Neil putting up with the likes of Ted Cruz.
    The facts as you lay them out can’t be ignored.
    But the GOP hitched their wagon to these nut-jobs…instead of keeping them corralled.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Boenher is the weakest speaker I have seen in my life. He is caving in to the demands of 30-40 extremists in his caucus, and ignoring the other two hundred or so other GOP members who probably don’t agree with the hostage taking tactic.

    Is Boehner so enamored of his position as Speaker that he doesn’t care about his legacy? He has no respect from any member of his caucus at this point. Does he want to go down in history as a craven opportunist or as a principled leader who does what’s best for the country? I think he’s not sure at this point and just want to hang on to his job. He could retire and be away from all this, but the perks must be too great to give it all up for the good of the country.

  4. Todd says:

    @Dave Schuler: I agree, a Constitutional amendment would be the only way to solve this problem. Especially considering how the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue last year:
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/25/us-usa-court-westvirginia-elections-idUSBRE88O0S820120925

    Interestingly, there is already some advocacy for the idea of (many) more, (much) smaller districts:
    http://www.thirty-thousand.org/

  5. Phillip says:

    Boehner clearly fears for his job as Speaker

    Nothing else to it, really. We’re driving off the cliff so one man can keep his postition. But then, as one of Tom Clancy’s characters once said, “They are entitled to their illusions.”

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My Rep, Jason Smith (8th MO) is one those signers. The 8th district is the 11th poorest district in the country. Yet he voted FOR crop subsidies for rich farmers, AGAINST food stamps for children, the elderly and the disabled, and AGAINST health care for poor people.

    And he will win re-election easily. Oh, one more thing about the people in this district? They are really stupid.

  7. Bob @ youngstown says:

    Good article Steve, however the sad reality is that nothing will be done.
    Unfortunately I see the US on track to, step by step, redefining the basic principles of democracy.

    Since we can,t seem to agree on applying historical democratic principles (e.g. Hastert “rule”), how can we promote democracy abroad.

  8. Tran says:

    I always thought the US political system with the multiple veto points was rather bad, and the gridlock seems to prove it. But then I realised that the first-past-the-post system is responsible for much of the breakdown of the US system right now. Proportional representation would solve most issues.

    Apart from the fact that the Democrats would have a majority in the House, proportional representation would end exactly these trends you describe here. Gerrymandering would be a non-issue. Either because there are no districts (“pure” proportional repesentation) and all members of the House would be elected over party lists, or because there is no need to gerrymander in mixed-member proportional representation, because you will get less party list members if you win an outsized number of direct seats. Thus redistricting is in nearly all cases non-partisan in MMP.

    This would lead to fewer save party seats, more incentives for Representatives to look to national polling numbers and more moderate members on both sides of the aisle.

  9. john personna says:

    For better or worse, we have Tom Friedman on our side:

    This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.

  10. Hal 10000 says:

    Regarding: gerrymandering. I believe this effect has been overestimated. To put it simply, Democratic voters tend to concentrate in urban areas, which gives the Republicans a huge structural advantage unless you construct extremely weird districts (like the one in Maryland that essentially slices random bits out of the city to make a mostly rural district Democrat). You can’t simply say “Democrats got 50% of the votes and should have gotten half the seats” because they have gigantic majorities in some of those districts.

    I think the larger story is the completion of political polarization between urban voters and suburban/rural ones. This wasn’t the case for many years because the Democrats would still get votes in rural areas — a legacy of their past domination of the South.

  11. @Dave Schuler:

    Which is another way of saying that it will require heroic efforts. Which is another way of saying it’s not likely to happen.

    Sadly, you are correct.

  12. @Hal 10000: You are correct: it is beyond gerrymandering to the very nature of single member districts.

  13. john personna says:

    @Hal 10000:

    California has a mix of rural and city, conservative and liberal. Before the independent redistricting commission results “popular” and “by district” varied greatly.

    Now, after redistricting, they do not.

    Sure, the countryside is solidly Republican, but as everywhere the popular vote should resemble the district results in those areas.

  14. Scott says:

    Great post. Will also point out that 77% of seats are safe and yet approval level is 10-15%. This mismatch has held for the last few elections. The dissonance in these statistics is loud and clear and yet there is a collective shrug about them. I think nothing will change because most people just think “throw the bums out” is a political philosophy.

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  15. James Pearce says:

    The structure of the districts has any number of members of Congress frightened for their seats.

    This kind of cowardice accomplishes nothing.

    Contrast that with the story of Angela Giron and John Morse, who are no longer legislators but whose legislation is still on the books.

    Given the make up of these districts, these 80 are acting rationally.

    No, they are mirrors reflecting back all the irrationality their constituents demand. Besides, even acknowledging that it’s in their interests to indulge the crazy, is that by itself rational? Has the definition of “rational” been so distorted by the Randians that now it only means pursuing one’s own interests?

  16. Rob Prather says:

    @Dave Schuler: Congress can up the number of representatives any time they want. I agree they should do so, perhaps using the cube root rule.

  17. john personna says:

    @Hal 10000, @Steven L. Taylor:

    Also note that a “systemic error” in districting would produce an error set centered on zero, year in and year out, and would not show a “new zero line” in response to state senate majorities.

    So … essentially that article says that “since the zero has always shifted with changes in state power, that’s just the way it works, and it’s no so bad.”

    No, that is not responsible democracy.

  18. john personna says:

    @Rob Prather:

    It would be interesting to up the number and removed the restriction that members be physically present in Washington.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Hmmm, this map is an unfathomable mystery. You’re saying white, rural, poorly-educated voters largely in the south violently oppose Mr. Obama’s policies. Despite the fact that Obamacare is most helpful to the poor.

    Poor, uneducated, rural white folks, largely in the old south opposed to Obamacare despite its obvious benefits to them.

    Gosh, I wonder what could possibly explain why white, rural, uneducated southerners would so obsessively oppose the policies of Mr. Obama? Let’s cast about endlessly for possible explanations, shall we? Is it the humidity? Is it the prevalence of mosquitoes? Is it Spanish moss? Is it the availability of grits? Is it the lack of Starbucks?

    Why, I declare, I’m baffled.

  20. @john personna: I wasn’t endorsing the article in question,. but rather noting that the general problem with SMDs goes beyond gerrymandering.

    I would point to the following and the links within it: Distortions of the US House: It’s not how the districts are drawn, but that there are (single-seat) districts

  21. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: Snark Alert!!!!!!

  22. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The link within is dead, but I’m pretty confident of my math.

    If districts were randomly assigned, there would be a truly random distribution of error between popular vote and district results.

    The fact that we can easily document a systemic bias, across the country, makes obvious that we have a systemic intervention.

  23. john personna says:

    Or to put it another way “there will always be error” does not mean “there should always be systemic bias.”

  24. michael reynolds says:

    Corn bread! It must be the corn bread.

  25. @john personna: Except that political interests are not evenly distributed. The high concentration of specific political interests based on geography creates a certain amount of built in bias in a single member district system.

    We need a mechanism to create more proportional outcomes. I lean towards MMP–which retains local representation, but also allow for proportional outcomes in the distribution of seats.

  26. @john personna: The point would be (from what I am discussing) is that SMD has structural bias built in given population patterns.

  27. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I’m not sure you are getting the difference between “error” and “bias.”

  28. PJ says:

    There’s a rather simple solution here.
    Sane Republicans need give up on enabling the cult that is the GOP and start voting for Democrats.

  29. john personna says:

    It would be a higher level claim in math, set theory or whatever, to say that since party R was rural and party D was urban, this _implied_ a bias in random sets.

    … except we know that both Rs and Ds have used the districting system to their advantage.

    They have introduced bias, rather than simple error.

  30. Ron Beasley says:

    The map is fascinating. In my own state, Oregon, Obama won comfortably but it appears that 3/4s of the state voted for Romney. That 3/4s is the 2nd congressional district which is primarily made up of sage brush, juniper and lodgepole pine. The classic rural urban divide. Eighty percent of the population lives in a quarter of the state. Four out of five congress critters are Democrats, all on the west side of the cascades.

  31. john personna says:

    There is a good graphic here:

    More on Bias (systematic) and Random Errors

  32. john personna says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Politics determined by rain shadow 😉

  33. @john personna: It is quite likely I am utterly missing your point, although I think you may be missing mine.

    Here’s what I am talking about: from the perspective of electoral rules, SMDs tend to mitigate against proportional representation of the views of the society because of the zero-sum nature of those elections, and the phenomenon of wasted votes.

    SMD, gerrymandered or not (even randomized) are rather unlikely to provide proportional outcomes. They are not going to produce competition, necessarily, either.

  34. Tom Strong says:

    What happened between 1998 and 2000? Those weren’t redistricting years, right?

  35. @Tom Strong: A partial explanation, and perhaps the main one: the 1990s were a period of realignment of southern conservative Democrats (voters and candidates) into the GOP.

    This realignment is a major driver of the current political situation.

  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Why, I declare, I’m baffled.

    If your Baffled, I get to be Grumpy. We can reserve Dopey for Jenos.

  37. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think I started by accepting your argument, but moved from there to looking at the aggregate error in samples, across states, and the country.

    If the error, the wasted votes, is random in each district, the accumulation of districts into states, and into a national result, should smooth that data.

    A random error cancels.

    On the other hand, a consistently applied bias accumulates.

    What we have right now, in the House, is an accumulated bias.

  38. Ron Beasley says:

    @john personna: I think the rain shadow determines population density. In addition the area east of the cascades is mostly federal land, BLM and Forest Service.

  39. john personna says:

    And to be honest it is frustrating when the “necessity of error” is used to justify bias.

  40. Dave Schuler says:

    @Rob Prather:

    Well, as Yogi Berra said, in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

    There’s no theoretical reason that the members of Congress wouldn’t vote to greatly reduce their own individual, personal power. Practically, I think it’s pretty unlikely. The states could force it by Constitutional amendment but barring that I don’t believe it will happen.

  41. Mikey says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    If your Baffled, I get to be Grumpy. We can reserve Dopey for Jenos.

    And Steven would be Doc, of course.

    I’m starting to think America’s founders, for all their Enlightenment-era brilliance, erred in their creation of our governmental structure. It seems to devolve, inevitably, to a two-party system that leads, also inevitably, to the sad and inane situation in which we find ourselves today.

  42. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    That 3/4s is the 2nd congressional district which is primarily made up of sage brush, juniper and lodgepole pine.

    I always thought sage brush and juniper tended to vote Democratic. I already know the hyper conservative leanings of lodgepole pines.

  43. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mikey:

    And Steven would be Doc, of course.

    Absolutely.

  44. al-Ameda says:

    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.

    Lovely, and here we are. All we can do is hope that the demographic shift is accelerating, because right now, supposedly “sane” Republicans are not going to be voting Democratic anytime soon.

  45. Scott says:

    @Mikey: I wouldn’t be so depressed. This country does go in cycles and this too shall pass.

    Although, I do wish the Congressmen would bring back caning and dueling.

  46. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Hey, I think I have a prior claim on Grumpy!

    (Trademark law…..)

  47. rudderpedals says:

    Dopey, Grumpy and Doc are taken but they’re still auditioning for a dude to go a questing with Frodo.

  48. jib10 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: How do ‘top 2 primaries’ effect SMD’s? From my perspective, they appear to pull candidates back to the middle. Repubs still win repub districts but they do it by attracting dems and independents in the primaries. The Tea party and other party activists are defanged, which is why all of them, left and right, HATE ‘top 2’ primaries.

    * ‘Top 2’ is where everyone, dems, repubs, ind, appears on the same primary ballot and the top 2 winners run in the general regardless of party affiliation, There is no party registration when you register to vote since it is meaningless in the primaries. It is currently used in WA, CA and LA.

  49. John D'Geek says:

    @john personna: Random error only cancels for specific distributions (symetric distributions IIRC), two examples being flat and normal (aka “bell-curve”). For biased distributions (non-symetrical), such as right-tailed and left-tailed, the error does not cancel out.

    Distribution in the United States is not “normal” (pun intended), so you can’t assume that the error will cancel out.

    I feel the need to point out that this is a relatively modern phenomenon. During the Agricultural Era they really didn’t need to worry about it too much.

    I also feel the need to point out that the goverment we have was specifically designed to inhibit Majority Rule. Does a danged good job of it too …

  50. John D'Geek says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: While I can agree with this:

    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.

    I have a hard time with this:

    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.

    The structure of our government was never intended for the districts to represent the interests of the country — they were intended to represent the interests of their districts. Which they are doing nicely. my “home district” in PA appears to be one of the “crazies”, and I gotta tell ya …. he’s doing what the people of our district demand.

    Going more general:

    Remember: Obamacare (though I prefer the term “Pelosi-Reid-Care”) was passed along strictly partisan lines in a strictly partisan manner that excluded Republicans from the debate entirely and the process almost entirely. To be shocked and offended that the excluded party was offended is insane. PRO (Pelosi-Reid-Obama) made it quite clear that they didn’t care about us in the least. To ignore that as the dominant contributing factor in what’s going on today is … err, “crazy”.

    This is, in fact, one of the key problems with Majority Rule: The Majority inevitably creates a disaffected minority.

    At least this way no one is shooting anyone.

  51. Moosebreath says:

    @John D’Geek:

    “Remember: Obamacare (though I prefer the term “Pelosi-Reid-Care”) was passed along strictly partisan lines in a strictly partisan manner that excluded Republicans from the debate entirely and the process almost entirely.”

    I remember nothing of the kind. To the contrary, I remember months of negotiations where Chuck Grassley rode herd over Olympia Snowe to prevent her from signing on to any deal, even though she had voted for it in Committee.

  52. C. Clavin says:

    @ John d’Geek…
    If your opinion is based on nonsense…then your opinion is nonsense.
    Just sayin’…

  53. C. Clavin says:

    On a really basic level…the Republicans weren’t involved in passing a Republican proposal…dreamed up by Republicans…and instituted on the state level by their Presidential nominee.
    Why do Republicans insist on stupidity????

  54. C. Clavin says:

    I wonder how all the private sector insurance companies are feeling about all their new business???

  55. Ernieyeball says:

    @michael reynolds: If you really want to scare the crackers:

    Beans and Cornbread!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yy6qICUTe0
    ———————
    WOT: (Way Off Topic)
    “Put down that Racing Form and pay attention to me!”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlKmnXV5qrA

  56. @jib10:

    How do ‘top 2 primaries’ effect SMD’s? From my perspective, they appear to pull candidates back to the middle.

    Not if the district is safe (which is true of most districts in CA where they use top 2).

  57. Ben says:

    @John D’Geek:

    Obamacare (though I prefer the term “Pelosi-Reid-Care”) was passed along strictly partisan lines in a strictly partisan manner that excluded Republicans from the debate entirely and the process almost entirely. To be shocked and offended that the excluded party was offended is insane. PRO (Pelosi-Reid-Obama) made it quite clear that they didn’t care about us in the least. To ignore that as the dominant contributing factor in what’s going on today is … err, “crazy”.

    What you just wrote may sound good to you, but it doesn’t represent the reality of what actually happened.

    First of all, they went with the community rating and individual mandate over single-payer or other more comprehensive ideas specifically because those were ideas that were originally supported by Conservatives.

    Enzi, Grassley and Snowe were involved in the committee discussions from the very beginning.

    Furthermore, the Republicans were not interested in compromising or negotiating on the resulting bill, they simply opposed it without offering anything. If you are the minority party, and you don’t like a piece of legislation, you should be fighting for amendments and compromises, instead of just sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming LALALALALALALLALALALLALAL, which is exactly what the Republicans did.

  58. mantis says:

    @John D’Geek:

    Remember: Obamacare (though I prefer the term “Pelosi-Reid-Care”) was passed along strictly partisan lines in a strictly partisan manner that excluded Republicans from the debate entirely and the process almost entirely.

    Absolute nonsense. You wingnuts sure do like your myths, don’t you?

    To be shocked and offended that the excluded party was offended is insane. PRO (Pelosi-Reid-Obama) made it quite clear that they didn’t care about us in the least. To ignore that as the dominant contributing factor in what’s going on today is … err, “crazy”.

    So we have shutdown and default because you delicate flowers were “offended” by things that only happened in your minds? Great way to run a country, morons. You will be the death of us all.

    This is, in fact, one of the key problems with Majority Rule: The Majority inevitably creates a disaffected minority.

    Its only inevitable if that minority is led by psychopaths.

    At least this way no one is shooting anyone.

    Tell it to the families of dead cops shot by anti government nuts obsessed with Obama’s gun-grabbing that doesn’t exist. Oh, and that he’s a black Muslim usurper. But you guys have managed to restrain yourselves from killing anyone over the fact that people are getting health insurance coverage. So far.

  59. Scott says:

    Remember: Obamacare (though I prefer the term “Pelosi-Reid-Care”) was passed along strictly partisan lines in a strictly partisan manner that excluded Republicans from the debate entirely and the process almost entirely. To be shocked and offended that the excluded party was offended is insane

    Nonsense. The debate went on and on with dozens of compromises. But at the end of the day, the Republicans do not want universal healthcare. Period. So all the negotiations were for naught and the Democrats could’ve had a much better, comprehensive, and rational bill if they truly rammed it through.

  60. wr says:

    @John D’Geek: “Obamacare (though I prefer the term “Pelosi-Reid-Care”) was passed along strictly partisan lines in a strictly partisan manner that excluded Republicans from the debate entirely and the process almost entirely. ”

    Shorter John D’Geek: “When I have to choose between my own memories of what actually happened just a few years ago and what Rush told me, I always choose Rush.”

  61. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @grumpy realist: Damn! Your right. OK, your Grumpy. But I get Sleepy then, cause of my chronic (yawn) insomnia.

  62. michael reynolds says:

    @John D’Geek:

    The oath of office for House members:

    “I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

    Their sworn obligation is to the Constitution, not to their own re-election. But beyond that they have the same obligation that every American citizen has to this country. We have been too quick to accept this notion that their only duty is to their own constituents. No. Their obligation is to the federal Constitution, and to the country as a whole, and they do not magically escape the obligation we all have to do the just and moral thing. I’d add that as Christians in most cases they’ve accepted an obligation to the “least of these, my brethren.” Not that it’s easy to find a Christian who actually cares what Jesus had to say.

    We are buying into a sort of corrupted capitalism as our basis for morality. Constituent service and self-perpetuation in office are not all we should expect. Strange as it may seem when speaking of Congressmen, they are still required to behave like human beings.

  63. michael reynolds says:

    Well, isn’t this interesting:

    Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, announced Monday that 35,000 part-time employees will soon be moved to full-time status, entitling them to the full healthcare benefits that were scheduled to be denied them as a result of Wal-Mart’s efforts to avoid the requirements of Obamacare.

    While some analysts believe that the move comes as Wal-Mart is attempting to deal with the negative view many Americans have of its worker benefits program, a closer look reveals the real reason for the shift—

    Wal-Mart’s business is going south due to the company’s penchant for putting politics and the squeeze on Wal-Mart employees ahead of the kind of customer satisfaction that produces prosperity over the long-term.

    Wal-Mart has also been running defensive ads attempting to defend themselves against (true) charges that they treat employees like sh!t.

  64. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: I will believe that this particular leopard has changed it’s spots when they allow a store to go union.

  65. Tom Strong says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    the 1990s were a period of realignment of southern conservative Democrats (voters and candidates) into the GOP.

    No doubt. That doesn’t seem like enough though. The realignment had (and has) been going on for some time, but in the chart you posted that is the sharpest 2-year swing. I suppose there could have been sharper swings earlier, but it’s still quite striking, especially since it wasn’t a census period.

    And both parties benefited about equally – the Democrats with 16 seats, the Republicans with 14.

    My first guess is that maybe the impeachment, with the intense partisanship it generated, had something to do with it. Plus maybe the boom economy was leading more people to move for jobs.

  66. Tom Strong says:

    @michael reynolds:

    IIRC Walmart was a big supporter of health care reform – mainly because they realized it would burnish their edge against smaller competitors. And their business is struggling because the entire retail sector is struggling, mainly due to Amazon, hardly an exemplary employer themselves.

    Also, 35,000 workers is nothing to Walmart. I agree with @OzarkHillbilly, this move is purely optics.

  67. Jc says:

    How about term limits? Wouldn’t that be a step in the right direction towards chipping away at this, or at least increase competition in districts

  68. michael reynolds says:

    @Tom Strong: @OzarkHillbilly:

    Oh, believe me, I’m not implying any moral content to Wal-Mart’s actions. But more from the story:

    In fact, Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to pay most of their workers a livable wage, while avoiding enough full-time employees to properly run a retail outlet, has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index—a position that should now be all too familiar to the nation’s largest retailer given that Wal-Mart has either held or shared the bottom spot on the index for six years running.

    For anyone who has not been following the Wal-Mart saga, sales have been sinking dramatically at the retailer as the company has turned to hiring mostly temporary workers (those who must reapply for a job every 180 days) to staff their stores while cutting full-time employees’ hours down to part-time status in order to avoid providing workers with healthcare benefits.

    The result?

    Empty shelves, ridiculously long check-out lines, helpless customers wandering through the electronics section and general disorganization at Wal-Mart store locations.

    This is hardly a recipe for success.

  69. rudderpedals says:

    @Jc: Term limits have been a disaster in the states by strengthening the powerful entrenched who have the staying power to outlast the limits, and by encouraging politicians to loot as much as they can before they’re limited out.

  70. Gavrilo says:

    Fancy charts and maps by the Cook Political Report notwithstanding, in the real world House elections are actually more competitive than ever. Witness the 2010, 2006, and 1994 elections. All three elections changed partisan control of the House. That’s three swings in 9 election cycles. From 1854 to 1994, partisan control in the House only changed 16 times and included a stretch when Democrats controlled the House for 60 out of 64 years.

  71. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Oh, believe me, I’m not implying any moral content to Wal-Mart’s actions.

    Did not for even one second think you were. Just pointing out that if they want to see a real difference in their lives they need to talk to a SEIU Business Rep.

    But of course, Wal-Mart has a policy of making sure the only difference in their lives will be unemployment.

  72. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gavrilo:

    Witness the 2010,

    I witnessed the 2010 elections, and then I witnessed the gerrymandering that followed. In a state where it is almost impossible for a Republican to win state wide office, they now wield veto proof majorities in both state houses. How does that work without gerrymandering?

  73. john personna says:

    @John D’Geek:

    I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry, where the difference between error and bias were carefully taught. I spent 15 years in medical diagnostics, where that difference was reinforced. I spent a further 5 years in environmental monitoring, where it was reinforced yet again.

    I get what you are saying about the possibility of specific distributions producing such a perturbation . In fact, I posted that myself above, here.

    Of course the conjecture does not prove the existence of such a special distribution, does it?

    For that you’d need a data and analysis to prove it.

    In fact we have the opposite, as Hal’s link shows, the bias has varied with party in power at the state level, and not consistently urban over rural or vis versa.

  74. David M says:

    @Gavrilo:

    Witness the 2010, 2006, and 1994 elections. All three elections changed partisan control of the House.

    1994: GOP/Dem North/South Realignment
    2006: Iraq War
    2010: Great Recession

    We’re talking about wanting competitive elections in normal circumstances, not cases that aren’t likely to occur again.

  75. john personna says:

    Seriously, if the bias in representation shifts, after redistricting, to the party in power of redistircting, how much more of a smoking gun can there be?

    And it is a non sequitor to say “that’s unavoidable because no districting is perfect.”

  76. grumpy realist says:

    @Jc: Unfortunately, term limits on congresscritters has been ruled unconstitutional. (And not “unconstitutional” in the mind of a bunch of birfers–an actual, Supreme Court decision has said so.)

  77. Gavrilo says:

    @David M:

    Total nonsense. If incumbents were as safe as Taylor claims, it wouldn’t matter. Vietnam was pretty unusual, as was the recession of the late 70’s. Neither produced a wave election like we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Not even when Nixon and Reagan were winning in huge landslides did Republicans take control in the House. Furthermore, the proof is in the money. Both parties dump huge amounts into House races nowadays because both parties truly, and rightly, believe they have a chance during every cycle.

  78. @john personna: As is often the case, I think we are talking past one another. I am, ultimately, arguing for a system that does not rely solely on SMDs and that would result in a more proportional relationship between vote percentages and seat percentages. If there is, for example, 8% Libertarian support in the electorate, then 8% of the seats ought to go to Libertarians. Of course, the actual conversation about such is more complex than that, as are the menus of options of how ones gets there. If I were asked to recommend such a system I would recommend MMP, which does use districts, but also is a proportional system.

    I concur that there are better ways top district than the ones we are using at the moment. I was never arguing “that’s unavoidable because no districting is perfect.”

  79. @Gavrilo: It is true that because of the realignment of the 1990s that the House changes hands in a partisan sense far more than it did before. That does not, however, mean that the individual district races are more competitive.

  80. Dave Schuler says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Here in Illinois we used to have a system that could, potentially, produce results that came closer to the one you prefer than the system that prevails now. In state races each voter could vote three times. The voter could apply all three votes to the same candidate, two to one candidate and one to another, or three different candidates. In theory that meant that if a libertarian candidate could convince his voters to cast all three votes for him while a Democratic voter split her votes among several candidates, the libertarian candidate could prevail, particularly in districts with larger libertarian constituencies.

    IIRC that system was abolished in 1970 when the state’s constitution was re-written.

  81. jib10 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I am not so sure. In WA stat, it appears to blunt the Tea Party threat for a primary opponent. The threat is that a far right candidate can win the primary when a smaller number of more ideological people vote and then cruise in the general election. But for that to work in a Top 2 primary, the incumbent has to finish 3rd in a primary with dems and ind voting since if the incumbent is on the ballot, they will almost always win.

    So far the Tea Party has had very little effect in WA and I think it is due to the top 2. Their candidates rarely finish better than 3 or 4 in the primary and they have never forced an incumbent out of the general election.

  82. Gavrilo says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Actually it does. When a congressional district changes hands, it is, by definition, a competitive district, regardless of how it is scored by Charlie Cook.

  83. al-Ameda says:

    I’d be really careful about creating a window for motivated minor parties/candidates.

    In Oakland in 2010, they had a ‘ranked choice’ voting system, in place to avoid costly run-off elections. The winner of the mayoral race was Jean Quan, who had far fewer 1st place votes than the leader, but when you added 2nd and 3rd place votes she claimed a 51% to 49% victory. There was a lot of advantage to running under the radar, and the winner of the 1st place plurality was a long-time pol who was had baggage. Voters for all the secondary candidates listed Quan as a 2nd or 3rd choice, and the “winner” was unable to get enough 1st place votes to prevail.

    Quan was low profile and benefitted from that. She’s been, by far, the least effective mayor of Oakland in memory. I doubt that she could have prevailed in a run-off election.