Matt Vespa

We’ve heard this ad nauseum from the media and members of Congress that it’s just too divided up on the Hill. It’s too gridlocked, or something. As George Will said in his acceptance speech upon receiving the George Washington Award from Americans For Prosperity Foundation in 2010, “gridlock isn’t an American problem; gridlock is an American achievement.” At the liberal conference Netroots Nation earlier this month, a panel comprised of Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D- CA), Mark Takano (D-CA), and Dan Kildee (D-MI) all said it made up the ingredients for a “crazy Congress.”

The panel, moderated by Huffington Post politics reporter Sabrina Siddiqui, is described as such:

From endless Obamacare repeal votes to the IRS “scandal” to the disgusting politicization of Benghazi, the 113th Congress has been a sight to behold. Hear from two progressive Members of Congress serving their first term on how they persevered to move the ball forward on progressive issues despite a conservative majority bent on picking useless political fights. Come to this panel for an inside look at how progressives are fighting the good fight in this House of Representatives—and what it will take to break through and win on important issues.

Siddiqui described the IRS fiasco as a “so-called scandal” in her opening remarks – and went on the list the various issues Congress faced, or is still debating, while House Republicans try to get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS when Lois Lerner was running the division overseeing tax-exempt nonprofits; issues like the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy relief, sequestration, immigration reform, and Syria to name a few.

She then posed a question to Rep. Kildee and the rest of the congressmen about what they’ve learned since being elected to Congress.

He said it was much more partisan than he had imagined, but said he was able to work on what he planned on working on – to a certain degree – in urban policy. Yet, as being the minority party in the House of Representatives, Congressman Kildee said he frustrated that his side is “playing more defense than offense.”

Congressman Takano said that he doesn’t get easily frustrated, which he attributes to his teaching career before entering public life; he taught high school for twenty-four years, so you know that tests your patience. The response drew some laughter from the audience.

“I try to keep my expectation in line,” he said. But Rep. Takano knew what he was getting into when he assumed his congressional office on January 3, 2013, where the lame duck Congress was still trying to hash out something for Sandy victims. Rep. Takano said House Republicans would eventually do the right thing, but had to be shamed into it by the Senate.

Although, he noted that the high point of the alleged dysfunction was the government shutdown. But Democrats in the House and Senate, along with President Obama held the line and the Republicans finally backed off their demands over Obamacare.

Rep. Takano said the tone changed after the shutdown with his Republican colleagues. They reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act, which he said would’ve been impossible in prior to the shutdown. So, standing firm against Republican hostage tactics, as he described them, was essential.

Rep. Lowenthal agreed with the premise that House Democrats play a lot of defense on the Hill, but said it’s important to be in that position on some. The congressman is on the Committee on Natural Resources, which he describes as highly partisan, where discussions about drilling on federal lands are common. “Somebody has to stand up and talk about the debate about some of the impact of climate change. And that’s what we do as progressives,” he said. It’s all about framing the debate.

He mentioned that one of the good things about the dysfunction in Congress is that it’s allowed Democrats to come together and create a political apparatus they can use when they retake the House. Rep. Lowenthal prides himself in being a member of the Progressive Caucus, where fellow Democrats support each other and lay out their policy objectives.

Lowenthal then railed against House Republicans, labeling them as arrogant and unwilling to heed to the will of the American public. “Remember history is on our side; the people are on our side; it’s only because of a crazy gerrymandering and the things that have happened in this county that we’re not in control of the Congress. America is not represented by the people who it really wishes to represent,” he said. So, that sentiment has also brought House Democrats, or at least the progressive ones, together.

Rep. Kildee also detailed how House Republicans are abusing the rules in way that’s unprecedented. Specifically, the number of closed rules on legislation that Kildee says silences the minority.

Granted, this is about House, but is he aware that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nuked the Senate filibuster rules on most presidential nominees and appointments?

The panel moved on to discuss immigration reform and the border crisis. Rep. Takano noted that these immigrant children are turning themselves in to immigration authorities, so it’s not about needing for more border guards.

These fleeing awful conditions –gang violence being one of them – and that they should be able to make their case in front of a judge; hearings that are already law under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

Rep. Lowenthal described this as a test for America, saying the law is clear that these children have rights and deserve their day in court. He also said the largest Cambodian and Vietnamese populations in the United States live within his district, where he remembers Americans welcoming Cambodians fleeing Pol Pot. After Saigon fell in 1975, we welcomed those Vietnamese refugees.

The problem with that analogy is that Mexico and Central America aren’t being ravaged by civil wars or experiencing mass slaughter at the hands of genocidal dictators. They’re also not fleeing political persecution.

House Democrats are waiting in the tall grass for Republicans to implode. As expected, they’re unhappy being in the minority, but see they’ve gridlock as a way to build a political infrastructure for when they’re in the majority.

Of course, they railed against gerrymandering; Takano wants districts to be redrawn based on independent commissions like in California. Oh, and they’re the party of the middle class.

One last note on gerrymandering, the 2011 redistricting gave the GOP no advantage whatsoever (via Washington Post):

2012 compared to the 2010 Districts

What if we “re-run” the 2012 House election, but using the old districts? We have done that simulation, using the 2008 presidential vote in both the old and new districts to capture how the redistricting might have moved partisans around. If we assume that nothing else affects House election outcomes but the partisanship of the districts—in other words, if we allow redistricting to have its maximum possible effect—we find that the 2011 redistricting cost Democrats 7 seats in 2012. This is not nothing, but it’s far less than what the Democrats needed to take back the House and about half what Wang estimated.

2012 compared to history

Perhaps the pre-2011 maps are not the right standard. In fact, there is evidence they were already biased toward Republicans. The question is whether that advantage is a product of redistricting. In turns out when we go back further in time across multiple redistricting cycles, House elections have tended to favor Republicans for at least a couple decades. Once we put 2012 in this historical context, it does not stand out as a “great gerrymander” at all.

Conclusion

We’ve written cautionary notes about redistricting several times in the past months. Simply raising the possibility that redistricting isn’t always as powerful or pernicious as its critics suggest sometimes leads people to conclude that we are “gerrymandering deniers” who think redistricting has no partisan consequences whatsoever.

That is not the case. The analysis above does not confirm the worst fears about the “great gerrymander” of 2012. But given the challenge of answering “compared to what?”, we would not argue that the 2011 redistricting gave the GOP no advantage whatsoever. Political science research on redistricting has confirmed that control of the line-drawing process does yield some benefits. The challenge is in estimating what those benefits are. We have tried to show that the answer is far more complicated, and that the magnitude of the redistricting effect is probably smaller than many have assumed.

And, then there’s this bit from Philip Bump, also of the Washington Post:

Gerrymandering is a game of increments, not sweeping change. If the goal has been to solidify districts as Democratic or Republican to make it easier for incumbents to win handily, that doesn't appear to have happened widely. If, instead, the goal is to pick up a seat here or there -- as was certainly the plan in Florida -- that has likely been more successful.

But the idea that we've moved away from some golden era of hard-fought contests between cigar-chompin' politicians simply isn't true. As these maps of the results of the six races above make clear, elections have always been a mix of close and landslide contests. The average margins of victory in our 435 House races remains pretty consistent.


Matt Vespa

Matt Vespa is the Web Editor and Community Manager at Townhall.com. He previously worked for CNS News and was the recipient of Americans for Prosperity Foundation's 2013 Andrew Breitbart Award for Excellence in Online Activism and Investigative Reporting.