By Geoffrey Plague, Vice President for Public Policy, Independent Sector
I keep track of developments in Washington on a daily basis, but even the most casual observer could cite numerous examples of the increasing polarization and decreasing comity among policymakers, culminating in last month’s federal government shutdown and near default on our nation’s debt obligations.
One quantifiable example of lawmakers’ growing difficulty in finding common ground is their declining collective rate of legislative success. During the 106th Congress (1999-2000), 580 bills navigated the perils of the legislative process to become law. By the 112th Congress (2011-2012), that number had declined by more than 50 percent, to 283. The first ten months of the 113th Congress have seen the enactment of just 45 public laws, as well as the aforementioned shuttering of the federal government, the first in 17 years.
Another measure of collaboration and compromise in Congress is the frequency with which members cross party lines to support legislation. This display of bipartisanship is also on the decline. More than 75 percent of all votes taken by the House of Representatives in 2011 featured a majority of Democrats opposing a majority of Republicans. According to Congressional Quarterly, this was the highest percentage of “party unity” votes ever recorded in the House.
Narrower governing majorities in both chambers, an extended period of divided government, and increased polarization of the American electorate are all identified as contributing to hyper partisanship and stalemate in Washington. However, it may not be fair to say that members of Congress are being driven apart because American voters are more divided.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, since 1990 the number of Americans who identify themselves as a Republican or Democrat has declined. Meanwhile, the number of self-identified Independents has increased by a third, from 29 to 38 percent of the population. Independents now represent a plurality in the United States.
So if the American people seem, in fact, to be less divided along party lines than in the past, why has the behavior of their elected officials in Washington not evolved accordingly? A closer look at the districts from which they are now being elected may be instructive.
In 1998, there were 164 swing seats in the House, 148 reliably safe Republican seats, and 123 reliably Democratic seats, according to political analyst Charlie Cook. Just two rounds of congressional redistricting later, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Only 99 House members in the current Congress were elected from swing districts, while the number of reliably safe Republican and Democratic seats has increased to 190 and 146, respectively. The growing divide in Congress seems attributable in part to the fact that members represent increasingly partisan districts, which reduces their incentive to stake out moderate positions or seek compromise across party lines.
Who gives us these congressional maps? In all but three states, redistricting is a political process controlled by elected officials. In some cases this presents an opportunity for one party to expand – at the other’s expense – its seats in Congress. In other instances, driven by narrower majorities and/or split control of the state house and governor’s mansion, Republicans and Democrats have simply agreed to add sympathetic voters to the districts they already hold. And in doing so, the number of safe seats held by members of Congress less inclined toword moderation or compromise continues to grow.
A standardized, nonpartisan process for determining congressional district boundaries by itself is not likely to end the dysfunction in Washington. But it might just be enough to start moving some members of Congress back toward the middle of the political spectrum, where more and more Americans now find themselves.
Geoffrey Plague is the vice president for public policy at Independent Sector.