To end brinksmanship, change election system

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

At this writing, the American people are plenty angry with their Congress. Depending on their political bias, the other party simply won’t negotiate and is playing with fire by not caving in to their own side’s position.

The U.S. Congress now has an approval rating hovering around 5 percent, ranking only slightly higher than the field mice in your garage.

At the same time, well over 90 percent of incumbent members of Congress are re-elected in any given election.

If you are wondering how members of Congress can be so stupid or pig-headed, you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out.

When our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they started the document with three words, “We, the people.”

This was to remind citizens that the ultimate power rested not with the government or its elected officials, but with the citizens.

Some of the Founding Fathers even had an idealistic view that political parties and factionalism would be our undoing. They wanted all candidates to run independently, not with political party backing. They forgot two important facts: First, humans are basically social animals, and second, strength lies in numbers. That is to say, we band together to survive and prosper.

Every once in a great while, voters will poke fun at the two-party system by electing a Jesse Ventura, but the game is rigged against candidates like Jesse or Ross Perot.

With many voters getting most of their information about candidates from TV ads, only those who can raise millions of dollars have a chance at being elected. “Celebrity candidates” like Ventura can overcome the lack of cash, but for others, it’s exceedingly rare.

Even Chip Cravaack, who upset 36-year incumbent Jim Oberstar in 2010, had the Republican Party behind him and also benefited from an exceptionally strong GOP year. While Oberstar far outspent him, Cravaack also benefited from the fact that Oberstar had allowed his campaign operation to wither into total ineffectiveness. He did not take Cravaack seriously until it was too late..

And therein lies the problem. Too many members of Congress now think they are unbeatable. And why shouldn’t they?

In 2012, Minnesota elected five Democrats and three Republicans to the U.S. House, so it seems like the state is split between the two parties.

But the reality is that the eight winners in 2012 received almost 59 percent of the vote. If it hadn’t been for Michele Bachmann, the 6th District Republican who makes liberals froth at the mouth and speak in tongues, the winners would have been over 60 percent.

Bachmann took only 50.5 percent, and was so shocked by her narrow escape that she decided not to run again. Her opponent, Jim Graves also dropped out, recognizing that the district is too Republican for a DFLer to win unless a Bachmann-like candidate can unite a spirited opposition.

How did this come to be? The political class has gamed the whole system. Not only do they make it difficult to compete financially, but they also use computerized gerrymandering to create safe districts.

In Minnesota, because we rarely elect a one-party government (2012 being the exception), the courts take on the task.

Redistricting took place after the 2010 census, and the judges’ plan moved a few counties and a few large-city precincts to different districts, but miraculously none of the incumbents in 2010 were pitted against each other or had to move.

The redistricting panel opted for as little change as possible. And why not? Legislatures and political parties have the power to make the judiciary more partisan or to change judicial district lines if they get ticked off at the judges. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.

The current delegation has been in office an average of 10 years. They like it. Not only do they have a personal fiefdom, but most of them could not earn anywhere else the $174,000 each of them receives from this job. Even with a 5 percent overall approval rating, the likelihood is that they will have a 100 percent re-election rate unless voters demand significant changes in the election process.

And that brings us back to the shutdown and the brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling.

If Minnesotans were serious about electing people to the U.S. House of Representatives who were more worried about their re-election and less about political posturing and grandstanding, they would demand that the Legislature change the laws on redistricting to insist on, not only equal population in each district, but also, in seven of the eight districts, an electorate virtually equal in strength between the two major parties.

Why seven of eight? Because in any election preceding a redistricting, one party or the other will get more votes. For example, if redistricting were being done now, the plan would be to create one district that gives the DFL a 145,000 vote advantage — Barack Obama’s margin of victory over Mitt Romney in Minnesota — and gerrymander the other districts to be as even as possible. The new districts would snake all over the state. The incumbents wouldn’t like it, and neither would the special interests that like to have their “own” congressman, but seven of the eight members of Congress would be shaking in their boots every time the voters had their say.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].