THE BLOG
12/31/2012 03:59 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2013

When the House of Representatives Isn't

The fact that Congress is broken is not exactly news. There are a couple of major changes that could actually help repair the Legislative branch, but both would require a constitutional amendment to cover federal and state election laws, and it would take both to really make a difference. The problem is both would require congressional approval, so you'd be asking elected officials to vote against their own political interests. But something has to change because what we got ain't working.

The Senate effectively demands a 60-vote majority to consider any legislation, and since neither party has 60 votes, the "greatest deliberative body in the world" doesn't spend much time deliberating. Instead, we're treated to an endless series of self-righteous comments about the opposition from individual senators, a class of political patricians given to walking around quoting themselves

Yet the Senate looks like democracy on steroids compared to the "People's House." The sad fact is the People's House no longer truly represents the people. Too many Representatives are completely insulated from a real constituency back home, yet are completely susceptible to the pressures of narrow financial or ideological interests in Washington.

Elected officials are supposed to be accountable to voters. Yet in the 2000 election, 98 percent of incumbents were re-elected. In 2002, only four Members of the House were defeated, the fewest in modern history. In 2012, with a Congress only marginally more beloved than social diseases, 93 percent of the incumbents were re-elected, and several that did lose lost in their own party primaries. A million more people voted for Democratic Congressional candidates than Republican, yet Republicans remain firmly in the majority. Very clearly, the U.S. House of Representatives is not really representative of the American public.

Part of this derives from decades of partisan redistricting that has yielded Congressional and state legislative districts that virtually assure the re-election of incumbents. Over many years of rotating partisan manipulation, we have a process in which elected officials pick their voters rather than voters picking their elected officials.

State legislatures dominated by political parties that focus only on taking and holding power have been able to create election districts that more resemble highly-protected nests for members of their party than the compact contiguous communities of interest they're supposed to be.

Gerrymandering is hardly new. Our tradition of drawing election districts to further partisan political goals goes back to 1789, when Patrick Henry and other anti-federalists in Virginia drew boundaries to try to prevent the election of James Madison to the first U.S. Congress. The term gerrymander was coined in 1812 to describe a particularly artfully-drawn Massachusetts state Senate district that favored the party of Governor Elbridge Gerry and resembled a salamander -- a 'Gerry-mander.' The practice was used in the 19th century to shape new states as they entered the union for the political advantage of one party or the other; for example, the Dakota Territory entered as two states instead of one.

In the modern era, drawing new boundaries for legislative and Congressional districts has generally accommodated population shifts and growth reflected in the decennial census, although former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay couldn't wait for the census and in 2005, tried to redraw Texas districts in the middle of the decade for the first time in U.S. history.

Remedies for these kinds of shenanigans are being attempted to in several states. In Arizona and California, responsibility for redistricting has been removed from elected officials. Independent commissions have been entrusted to draw new district boundaries based on strict, non-partisan criteria. Idaho, Iowa, Montana and Washington have independent commissions, but elected officials can veto their plans and appoint partisan representatives to the commissions.

The other major step to change anything in Congress has been talked about forever: term limits. Rapid changeover in Members of the House and Senate is the only way to reduce the influence of special interests and the important role they play in re-election campaigns. This is absolutely critical because there are few things, if any, more important to an elected official than being re-elected.

Most commonly, influence is exercised through direct contributions to campaigns. In House and Senate races, such funding can make all the difference. And, since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, even more money is on the table, not to mention the actual participation of Super PACs in individual races.

But just as influential and pernicious are the Washington special interests that demand absolute fealty from Members of Congress to avoid active opposition, and basically scare the hell out of elected officials. Organizations such as the National Rifle Association and a group of industry and business associations are mean as a snake and able to put lots of money into campaigns.

There are significant downsides to term limits. We would lose centuries of institutional knowledge and policy expertise, not to mention some extraordinary leaders. But there is now no apparent constitutional way to limit the influence of special interests in congressional elections, and therefore, in the legislative process. So the only solution is to make the elected officials less vulnerable by limiting their time in office.

Redistricting reform would, over time, produce more competitive campaigns; candidates and elected officials more attuned and more accountable to the people they represent. And term limits can reduce special interest influence in Washington. It will take both steps to really make a difference. Neither will be easy. Neither will happen quickly. But together they may provide the only path to a fully-functioning federal government.