Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Overlooked Element in the Government Shutdown

Anyone who pays even a little attention to the news knows that there has been a substantial if incomplete shutdown of the federal government, precipitated by a temper tantrum thrown by John Boehner, who dances subserviently at the behest of everyone’s favorite foreign-born chauvinist, Ted Cruz. The allegedly left-leaning press has contorted itself into knots too complicated for the Boy Scout Handbook in order to appear impartial, suggesting that “there’s plenty of blame to go around,” and similar twaddle. Fact is, this debacle is 100% the result of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives’ falling well short of the maturity level of a particularly bratty 2nd-grader. Whereas there is little doubt that the Obama administration is playing this situation for political points rather than engaging in anything resembling statesmanship, the GOP—intentionally or otherwise—bear all of the responsibility for the shutdown.

The original excuse for the Republicans’ juvenile display—the alleged horrors of “Obamacare”—was transparently mendacious from the start. Curmie was only reluctantly and tentatively brought around to the point of view that the Affordable Care Act was a net positive, and may change his mind in the future. But the claim, as Fox News asserted and GOP politicos obediently echoed, that the ACA had “failed” before it even took effect would have to take a step up in integrity to qualify as sophistic. More to the point, you never get everything you want in politics: that’s the way of the world. Inconveniencing millions of people and actually endangering lives in order to engage in a histrionic hissy fit to overturn a bill that was passed by the Congress, signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court isn’t statesmanlike; it isn’t adult behavior; it isn’t even ethical.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I choose instead to discuss something the yammering classes have scrupulously avoided… how we ended up with a divided government. After all, it would be impossible to imagine a Speaker Pelosi furloughing workers and denying access to needed services in a fit of pique against the Obama administration. I doubt, in fact, that had the 2012 election turned out radically differently, she’d have done so to protest the overreach of a Romney administration… she might have, of course, but we’ll never know.

We’ll never know because President Obama cruised to re-election while the GOP maintained their majority in the House, even though they lost seats both there and in the Senate. Given the fact that the Dems actually followed Curmie’s advice (not that they actually paid any attention to Curmie, per se, but you know...) and ran as Democrats this time, embracing rather than running away from the signature achievement of Obama’s first term, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the electorate rejected the ACA. Rather, there is one word that accounts for the Republican majority in the House: gerrymandering.

The Democrats won the popular vote for the House of Representatives in 2012 by over 1.6 million votes, or 1.4 points (not a landslide by any means, but not close, either) and yet Speaker Boehner claimed affirmation because the GOP kept a 33-seat majority (over 7.5 percentage points). In other words, the disparity between the popular vote and actual representation differs by about 9 percentage points. That’s a lot.

There are plenty of analysts who attribute much if not all of the disparity to gerrymandering, and while there are those who disagree, the fact that in, say, Pennsylvania, the Democrats took a clear majority of the votes but got fewer than a third of the Representatives… that certainly suggests an inequitable distribution of voting suasion. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the district lines were drawn intentionally to shift the balance of power from one party to the other, and there were in fact some states in which Democrats received disproportionate representation—Republicans took the popular vote in Arizona by 8.5 points but the Dems got 5 seats to the GOP’s 4, for example. So the above commentary isn’t intended to criticize only the Republicans. But, as Sam Wang wrote in the New York Times in February of this year, “Both sides may do it, but one side does it more often.”

Moreover, there’s this: Texas Attorney General and (God help us) likely successor to Rick Perry as Executive Idiot Governor Greg Abbott actually brags about his gerrymandering chicanery, not in some backroom schmooze with campaign contributors like Mitt Romney’s unfortunate “47%” gaffe, but in public court documents (!). In a defense of Texas’s practice vis-à-vis the Voting Rights Act, Abbott argues as follows:
DOJ’s accusations of racial discrimination are baseless. In 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats.
Seriously, he said that. You see, the attempt wasn’t to disenfranchise minority voters; it was to disenfranchise Democrats, and it’s just a concidence that a lot of Dems are minorities and vice versa. Paraphrasing only slightly: “Of course we cheated, but we’re not racists.” (A good many Texas Republicans actually are, of course, but that’s another matter.)

Most Republican legislators and other politicos aren’t as brazen as Abbott in privileging their own power over the actual will of voters, but you can bet that a lot of them had similar motivations. So when you contemplate the puerile antics of the Boehners and Cruzes of the world, remember this: there may be a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, but there isn’t in the population than elected them.

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