Gerrymandering, not the constitution, caused the US shutdown

Gerrymandering indirectly caused the government shutdown by reducing Congressmen’s ability to compromise. Fixing them would cost nothing and provide real benefits.

Surely even the most optimistic of Republicans must admit that they ‘lost’ these past few weeks. Policy-wise, it could be argued that the Republicans have in fact conceded more to the Democrats than if they had passed a “clean” CR. Public relations wise, their poll numbers plummeted and many previously solid sections of society, such as veterans and the elderly, felt alienated. Even Speaker John Boehner admitted in an interview with an Ohio radio station “we just didn’t win”.

Not that the debate is still over. The deal may extend the federal borrowing limit until the 7th of February, but a long term plan was not agreed on. Instead, both parties agreed to create a committee to discuss a plan for a long term solution. Judging by the intense polarisation and partisanship that has characterised US politics these last few decades, it is not cynical to expect leaks, public disagreements and perhaps even the committee breaking down in the months to come.

Last week I looked at the game theory behind the government shutdown, and why it was almost certain that the Republicans would concede on all points at the eleventh hour. It was not a particularly brave prediction. Both the cause and outcome of the government shutdown are simply a result of the institutional layout of the US budgetary process. The pandemonium should make British people thankful for our constitution. We would be fools to throw it away.

Nevertheless, it is not the constitution or the budgeting process that is to blame for the government shutdown. Checks and balances do not make government shutdowns inevitable so long as parties can compromise with one another. Nor has it always been this way. There was no Tea Party or Ted Cruz during the government shutdowns in the 1980’s. It is a very recent phenomenon for a party in control of only one half of a one organ of government to use every institutional lever at their disposal to overturn laws that they cannot repeal using conventional methods. Nor is it regular in other countries that gives powers to minorities. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out, in some countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, any member of Parliament can filibuster legislation indefinitely, whereas it takes 41 to do the same in the US Senate.

The variety of tools designed to enhance the power of minorities might have been what enabled “One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government” to cause a government shutdown but the constitution is not to blame; the extreme polarisation of US politics is what is at fault. Boehner could have called a vote for a “clean” CR many times but chose not to until just a few hours before the US would have defaulted. Partisanship is highly evident in the committees at the state level get to draw the boundaries for Congress districts. Due to the fact that state governments, both Republican and Democratic, wish to see their party win seats in the Congressional elections, district borders are gerrymandered to the benefit of their own party. Many districts are often oddly contorted such as the Democrat-controlled Maryland 3rd congressional district.

Due to this extreme gerrymandering just 35 of the 435 seats can be called competitive. However, gerrymandering also has a more obscured effect. The fact that congressmen are highly unlikely to lose their seat in the election means that the only chance they can lose their seat is in the primary election. As Congressmen may well lose their seat in the primary election if they break with their party’s base, such as by violating their no-tax pledge, they become more reluctant to compromise. Combined with gerrymandered boundaries they have the effect of polarising the debate as candidates no longer have to worry about alienating swing voters.

Obviously the political polarisation of the USA cannot be entirely accounted for by gerrymandering but it has gone some way to explaining why parties have become so unable to compromise. Requiring districts to be drawn up by a non-partisan committee or by a federal agency, as is the case in the UK, would go some way to solving this.

Will Archdeacon


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