Last month’s defeat of the Republican proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare illustrated many things about the contemporary state of our democracy — including Congressional gridlock, the inexperience and impatience of a president not used to negotiating political deals, and the coarseness of our national political discourse.
However, perhaps the most significant lesson of the debacle emanated from the ability of the House Freedom Caucus to hold the Republican Party’s governing majority hostage with its unwillingness to compromise.
Regardless of whether or not you believe the bill should have passed, the ability of a small minority — 30ish (of 435) of the most conservative members of the House — to wield such influence is a flashing neon light illuminating the dysfunctional effects of Congressional gerrymandering. Even though both parties engage in preferential partisan gerrymandering, for the last three redistricting cycles, Republican mapmakers have been in a better position than Democrats to draw safe seats for their party due to their control of more state legislatures where redistricting primarily occurs.
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Ironically, by creating safe seats for Republican legislators, the historically moderate party leaders have unwittingly spawned the ultra-conservative “Freedom Caucus.” They now find themselves unable to govern effectively due to disruption from the right, rather than from their traditional opponents on the left.
Evidence of how extreme these right-wing legislators are can be gleaned from an ideological rating system developed by Congressional scholars which ranges from -1 (most liberal) to +1 (most conservative). The average score for the Freedom Caucus is +0.659, a full one-third higher than all other Republicans, whose average score is +0.455. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio’s 4th District has a score of +0.692, and has led several of the battles that have been fought by his fellow conservatives, including the one that resulted in the collapse of the health care bill.
Behaving inflexibly comes from not having to worry about serious electoral competition, much less defeat, for many caucus members who are in highly gerrymandered districts. Indeed, according to one measure which ranges from 0-100, with higher scores reflecting the most egregiously-gerrymandered districts, Congressman Jordan’s district score is 86 while the average across all Ohio districts is 82.
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What can be done? Research has shown that less partisan districting processes lead to more competitive elections, fewer ideologically extreme candidates, fewer court challenges of the maps, and less partisan polarization in legislative decision-making — more governance and less gridlock. At least one silver lining from the health-care act failure may be the realization on the part of several Republicans, with their majority-party status, that redistricting reform is needed.
Here in Ohio, some key GOP leaders, including Gov. Kasich, have signaled an interest in changing our Congressional redistricting to mirror the new bi-partisan state house redistricting process that Ohio citizens approved in 2015. The non-partisan League of Women Voters is advocating just such a proposal. I urge you to review it at their website (http://www.lwvohio.org), and join them in supporting this important reform.
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Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University.