Much of Washington is engaged in another round of what it does best: huffing, puffing, and above all, strutting. "What penalty should the House of Representatives mete out to former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY), now that the House Ethics Committee has found him guilty on 11 of the 13 counts filed against him?" many ask themselves. Options range from payment of a fine to reprimand to censure to expulsion.
The agony Rangel's peers profess over their disgraced colleague's fate is a smoke screen. What really troubles them at a time when public approval of Congress is at an all-time low—and only two weeks after voters booted a record number of Democratic incumbents out of office—is whether the public will find the rest of Congress complicit in Rangel's behavior. It should. It may only be a matter of time before the public figures out that, by participating in and benefiting from arrangements that allowed Rangel (and others) to acquire power and use it to feather his own nests at public expense, Rangel's peers became his accomplices. [See who donates the most money to Rangel.]
The word political scientists use to describe that system is "gerrymandering." Named for Elbridge Gerry, an early 19th century Massachusetts governor who went on to serve as Vice President under James Madison, "gerrymandering" takes place when the dominant political party in a state legislature draws state legislative and congressional districts in such as way as to assure for itself as many "safe seats" as possible. State officials have been known to create districts in which 80 percent or more of the voters adhere to the same political party. (Historically astute readers will recall that Abraham Lincoln emerged as a national figure after losing a race for the U.S. Senate after his party polled more votes at the polls than its opposition. That was in the days when state legislators, rather than voters, picked United States senators. The Democrats had so gerrymandered Illinois as to have rendered the "Little Giant," Stephen A Douglas, impervious to defeat. Does Sen.-elect Rand Paul really want to return to that practice?)
Allowing elected officials to decide where they will run and which voters they will represent must be the most blatant form of conflict on Planet Earth. With the 2010 census, which reports population changes that will determine how many Congressional seats to award every state (each district must contain the same number of people), almost complete, gerrymandering is about to begin and in earnest. A much under-reported story of the last election was that through its gains of 680 state legislative seats, the Grand Old Party stands to gain dozens of new seats in 2012, before candidates are even named. Democrats, who were strangely silent about this practice all the years "gerrymandering" worked in their favor can be expected to decry their adversaries' "unprecedented arrogance." [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]
Because most American voters shy away from primary elections, party machines have little difficulty securing the nomination of favored candidates. Sensing no chance to win, the party "gerrymandered" out of one particular seat, invests its resources elsewhere. Not surprisingly, as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger points out, even in years such as this when a "wave" of voter anger resulted in the defeat of record numbers of congressmen, Congressional turnover has been lower than that of the once-powerful Soviet Presidium.
Given that power is distributed in the House largely on a basis of member seniority, those with the safest seats rise to chair committees, where they exercise disproportionate influence over national policy. (This is more damaging to the body politic than the pet villain of the day, "earmarks.") Committee chairs, themselves facing no opposition, nevertheless rake in millions of campaign contributions from vested interests, often outside their districts. They then, like Johnny Appleseed, dispense those funds to colleagues in more competitive seats. This, in turn, helps them retain their coveted gavels. Such practices all but re-enforce the sense of "entitlement" so many politicians exude. Rangel is but the latest in a series of perpetrators. (Former Appropriations Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, for example, went to jail after committing similar ethical and legal violations as Rangel.)
There are signs that the public has caught on to the trick its elected officials routinely play on it. The first sign came during last year's Senatorial debate in Massachusetts when Republican Scott Brown, to thunderous applause, corrected moderator David Gergen for suggesting that the Senate seat being contested was Ted Kennedy's rather than the voters'. Observers say that Brown's campaign peaked at that instant. [See who donates the most to Brown.]
Now comes along the blockbuster documentary, Gerrymandering. In it, director Jeffrey Reichert reveals in the clearest possible way lengths to which state legislators go to avoid competition. Together with Davis Guggenheim's Waiting For Superman, a sad portrayal of how teachers' unions have intimidated state and local governments into placing job security of bad teachers ahead of the educational needs of students, Gerrymandering has my vote for the movie of the year.
In its opening scenes, viewers are treated to the spectacle of a California state legislator warning a staffer involved in the redistricting process not to put another "f-----g Asian" in her district. (The staffer, herself of Asian descent, observes that this is a hard thing to do in northern California.) Attention later shifts to the legislator's Florida counterpart from a competitive district. Because he has to work to retain his seat, this fellow shows himself well attuned to the issues on voters' minds and remains astutely attentive to them. (Now there is a novel idea. Reichert certainly knows how to make his point.)
The movie ends with passage of the Schwarzenegger-backed referendum that would have a panel of former judges, rather than sitting legislators, allocate legislative seats with an eye toward increasing rather than decreasing competition. With Arnold about to have additional time on his hands, perhaps he should take his campaign national. Perhaps his idea might be enshrined as a constitutional amendment. Let's call it the "Rangel Amendment." Were the "Terminator"-turned-"Governator" to pull it off, he will have done more to improve the health of democracy in the United States than anything else he and his colleagues have achieved while in office. Now, that is the kind of change I could believe in. It could even pave the way for the election of our first foreign-born president.