Representative Cooper has many wise things to say about challenges faced by Congress. However, many of these difficulties are the understandable results of a more competitive political environment than existed from the 1930s to the 1990s, and they are unlikely to disappear in the near future.
Representative Cooper presents the stewardship of former Speaker Tip O’Neill as an almost mythic time of comity, collegiality, and common purpose. Congress may in fact have been more productive and responsive to the nations’ needs, but the reasons go beyond O’Neill’s leadership and the rules and practices of the House.
In the decades after World War II, House Republicans advocated bipartisan legislating—anything else would have meant their exclusion from the process. When O’Neill became Speaker, Democrats had controlled the House for 22 years straight and for 42 of the preceding 46. Much of what Representative Cooper lauds from the O’Neill speakership was a result of Republican acquiescence to Democratic control.
Democrats didn’t just control the House: they dominated it. From 1959 through the end of Democratic leadership in 1994, the Democrats, on average, held a 93-seat majority. With so many votes to spare, Democratic leaders could tolerate weak partisan discipline yet still muster the votes needed to pass their legislative priorities. Many Democrats did minimal campaigning, and Republicans who amassed significant seniority were typically from heavily Republican districts where they, too, did not need to campaign aggressively.
Members from safe districts are able to spend more time in Washington, D.C., focus on legislating, and build relationships with fellow members. Serving in Congress is easier and probably more rewarding when one does not face a strong possibility of defeat in every election.
In spite of all this, past Congresses may have had as many or even more members who regularly faced tough reelections. The difference in the post-O’Neill era is that today the safe seats are distributed more equally between the parties—fewer Democrats and more Republicans represent safe seats—and the consequences of each seat that changes control are much greater. Since 1994 flipping control of the chamber has required converting a very small number of seats.
Democrats dominated the House from 1930 to 1994 because they dominated the South. Even when Republicans won presidential landslides, voters, especially in the South, would regularly split their tickets and elect Democrats to Congress. In 1972 George McGovern won in only 58 of 435 Congressional districts, yet 242 Democrats were elected to Congress; in 1984 Democrats won 187 more districts than did Walter Mondale, and in 1988 they won 120 more than Michael Dukakis.
Whatever effect gerrymandering may have had in the past, it will probably diminish in the next decade.
In recent elections Republican presidential voters have become more likely to vote for Republicans for Congress. Democratic Congressional candidates won only 4 more districts than Al Gore, only 22 more than John Kerry, and only 14 more than Barack Obama. This development has dramatically changed the House. Now that Congressional results largely track presidential results, there are more safe Republican seats, many of them in the South. As a result, the House now has fewer conservative Southern Democrats. Thus, compared to the era of Democratic dominance, ideology now neatly tracks partisanship in the House. Majorities have fewer opportunities to pick up votes from their ideological allies in the minority caucus, so the majority requires more partisan discipline than Democrats required during their dominance. And now a shift of 50 or so seats affects not the degree of Democratic dominance but control of the House.
Cooper is correct that state parties sometimes gerrymander districts in their favor, and this has contributed to the decline of Democratic dominance. A few states have maps drawn to favor Democrats, but more have favored Republicans. The propensity of Democratic voters to cluster together in urban areas and college towns makes it easy for Republicans to draw a few districts that give Democrats over 70 percent of the vote so they can draw a greater number that will give Republicans 55 percent of the vote. Majority-minority districts, designed to increase minority representation in Congress, have also served to cluster Democrats in fewer but more heavily Democratic districts.
But those who gerrymander often get greedy. States such as Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, where a party overreached in trying to maximize Congressional representation, contain a disproportionate share of the seats that have changed control since 2002. States, such as California, whose district maps have largely protected the status quo, have had very little turnover.
Whatever effect gerrymandering may have had in the past, it will probably diminish in the next decade. Many states have passed initiatives to proscribe rules for redistricting or to turn the process over to nonpartisan commissions.
Statewide presidential results also show the limited effects of gerrymandering on the partisan composition of Congress. Barack Obama’s 2008 margin of victory—a bit more than 7 percent in the popular vote—was almost identical to George Bush’s margin over Michael Dukakis in 1988. In that year only ten states were more than fifteen points from the national average—the seven-point margin for the overall winner. Dukakis won three states by more than eight points, and Bush won seven states by more than 22 points. These noncompetitive states contained 44 districts.
In 2008 John McCain won nineteen states by more than eight points, while Obama won ten by more than 22 points. These noncompetitive states contained 231 districts. Some of those states are big enough such that gerrymandering could determine control of a several seats. But many have six or fewer districts, limiting the opportunities for gerrymandering.
For decades Republicans were resigned to minority status. Now that the minority party can reasonably hope to regain control within an election or two, majority caucuses will employ greater vigilance in protecting their margins than was required of Democrats for the 60 years after the Great Depression. The majority will enlist its entire caucus to protect its control. Minority caucuses will be tempted to obstruct legislation in the hope of enacting their own priorities when the return to power. And there will be an ongoing tension between partisan gain and the common good.