An Election Result That Would Improve Foreign Policy

October 29, 2010 Topic: CongressDomestic PoliticsElections Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

An Election Result That Would Improve Foreign Policy

California's proposition to reduce the nefarious practice of gerrymandering would help fix a partisan Congress incapable of producing sound foreign policy.

Although foreign and security policy has received less attention than domestic issues in the election campaign, there has been informed speculation about the implications for foreign policy of possible election outcomes—of a swing toward the Republicans, of split control between the White House and Congress, of the rise of the Tea Party movement. Although each of these is likely to have visible near-term implications for foreign policy, I'm taking a longer term perspective and looking hopefully at another contest to be decided on Tuesday: Proposition 20 in California. This initiative would take the drawing of Congressional district lines out of the hands of the state legislature and give it to a redistricting commission. A separate initiative passed two years ago created the commission and gave it the job of drawing lines for the legislature's own districts. Passage of Proposition 20 would be an encouraging step toward reducing the egregious gerrymandering that leads the current map of U.S. Congressional districts to inspire even more flights of fancy than did Elbridge Gerry's salamander—such as the Illinois 17th, the “rabbit on a skateboard”.  

Gerrymandering has had several nefarious effects, including entrenching incumbents and giving unfair advantage to whichever party had the power to draw the lines. Another effect has been to create more seats in the U.S. House of Representative that are safe for one or the other of the two parties. This in turn has meant less responsiveness to the popular will, which requires genuinely competitive districts. It also has meant an accentuation of political polarization and partisanship. In many districts the only real contests, which may be waged in primary elections, are for support of the hard core base of one or the other party. There simply is little incentive to reach across the party divide.

The heightened partisanship that has been so apparent in Washington over the past quarter century has had corrosive effects on policy-making that are often noted, including by some discouraged retiring Congressmen. The damage is to foreign policy as well as domestic. It materializes most often in the scoring of partisan points or the seeking of partisan advantage taking priority over the pursuit of sound policy on whatever is the issue at hand. We got a recent reminder of this in Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's remarkably blatant (and honest) statement of his priorities for the coming session—that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” At other times the corrosive effects take the form less of sharp party divides than of one party going against its better judgment for fear of getting politically whacked on a issue on which the other party has a natural advantage—a pattern seen most often among Democrats afraid of being labeled soft on national security.

Proposition 20 has significant opposition. In fact, there is another initiative on the California ballot—Proposition 27—that would dissolve the existing commission and give the drawing of the state legislature's own district lines back to the legislature itself. (If both initiatives pass, the one with more “yes” votes becomes law.) Democrats, who enjoy a majority in the legislature, are on the wrong side of this issue. Prominent Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, oppose Proposition 20.

Passage of Proposition 20 would be far from a cure-all for gerrymandering. The redistricting commissions in the dozen or so states that already have them display varying degrees of independence from the elected politicians who in many cases choose most of the commission members. The best of the current procedures for drawing district lines is in Iowa, where the job is performed by a group of apolitical bureaucrats who are specifically enjoined from considering the geographic distribution of party supporters or the location of incumbents' residences. The state legislature still approves or disapproves the bureaucrats' work, but only on an up-or-down vote on the entire plan and subject to challenge in the courts on whether the explicitly apolitical standards for line-drawing are being met.

The connection from redistricting to level of partisanship to cogency in policy-making is admittedly one that will not be clearly and quickly apparent. But current arrangements are so hostile both to democratic principles and to careful consideration of policy that every little bit helps.