THE BLOG
01/01/2013 09:21 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2013

How the Man Who Created the Cliff Also Saw It Coming

There may be a Republican who can help alleviate the dysfunction that has gripped Washington, but he's not in John Boehner's caucus. He's the one who last year predicted the mess we're facing to begin with: President George W. Bush. In his memoir, Decision Points, the former President warned of the road our politics were heading down if we failed to change the way we draw congressional districts: "Since members in so-called safe districts do not have to worry about challenges from the opposite party," Bush wrote, "their biggest vulnerability is getting outflanked in their own party," leading them to adopt extremist positions that polarize the Congress. Sound familiar?

The problem Bush identified is only getting worse. As a result of party-based gerrymandering, Nate Silver estimated this week that 400 of the 435 seats in Congress can now be considered "safe" (that is, the incumbent party's voters make up a comfortable majority of the voters in the district and thus guarantee that the incumbent party, if not the incumbent congressman, will retain the seat). The Republicans did such a good job maximizing their districting advantage after sweeping statehouses in 2010 that Democrats won one million more total House votes across the country this year, which translated into only 46 percent of House seats. To be fair, Democrats have sometimes done the same when given the chance.

This is why it has accurately been said in America that voters don't pick their representatives anymore; representatives pick their voters. The fiscal cliff debacle is the chicken of this disastrous districting coming home to roost.

A GOP rep from a safe district made up predominantly of GOP voters has far more to fear from a primary challenger accusing him of "siding with Obama" than he does from a Democrat accusing him of conservative extremism. It's therefore no surprise that these caucus members are opposed to a deal -- any deal -- that requires even an ounce of compromise.

Until that dynamic changes, no matter how badly the Republican caucus as a whole damages our economy or our country, individually they're unlikely to pay any price at the polls. It's a recipe for national catastrophe if it continues, especially if Speaker Boehner is unwilling to pass legislation with the support of Democrats and Unicorns -- er, I meant moderate Republicans. It's also made me think John Boehner might agree with President Bush were he to write his own memoir today: of redistricting reform, President Bush wrote: "For future presidents looking to tackle a big problem, this would be a worthy one to take on."

So President Obama should take him up on it. He should use the State of the Union to invite President Bush to co-chair a commission, perhaps with President Clinton, to propose a package of reforms that would fix our redistricting problem.

It's going to take a commission led by figures from both parties at the Bush-Clinton level to make a dent in a problem this intractable. And these extremely red districts are some of the only places where Bush retains popularity.

While Bush has shunned national politics since leaving office, there are a few reasons why this might intrigue him. First, it would allow him to re-enter national life on an issue entirely divorced from the many controversial topics with which he is associated and which his post-Presidency reflections have led him to conclude requires attention. Second, it gives him a way to shift his legacy by playing the conciliator looking to fix our broken government by moderating its extremes, and to do so four years before his brother hopes moderate general election voters have a more favorable memory of the family name.

The commission's mandate should be twofold: First, to produce a districting system that maximizes the competitiveness of congressional elections. Whether this should be through independent commissions, be they bipartisan or non-partisan, are questions for the commission to resolve. But as a goal, more competitive elections will both foster compromise by rewarding electeds who play to moderate swing voters, and will make more citizens' votes matter, leading to more civic engagement and less special interest capture.

Second, the President should require the commission to also ensure that districts comply with civil rights laws designed to give minority candidates at least a reasonable chance of success. It should not require argument anymore that the US Congress should reflect the diversity of the American people and notwithstanding Obama's success, voting is still racially polarized at the congressional level. That said, the goal of ensuring a diverse Congress can often come into conflict with the goal of ensuring competitive elections. This tension has bedeviled reform advocates and critics. And it's another challenge for the commission to address.

Lastly, and this is the key, the package of reforms the commission develops should be voted on by Congress in full, but if enacted should not go into effect for ten years. This obviously doesn't solve the immediate problem, and much damage will be done in the next ten years to our country as a result of the current districting disaster, but the problem with redistricting reform is that it's generally anti-incumbent and therefore incumbents have every incentive to oppose it. By giving any reform legislation a sunrise date ten years in the future, the package mitigates the self-interest problem of those currently in office and allows them to support a deal that's good for the country without having to sacrifice their own job security in the process (since as we've seen this week, that's a tradeoff they're singularly unwilling to make).

President Obama has a lot on his plate for a second term, from climate change to immigration to gun control to breaking the military-industrial complex to campaign finance reform, but he and future Presidents will struggle to succeed on any of these critical issues unless they have a Congress designed to solve the nation's problems and not cater to the most extreme activists in the Republican Party. President Obama campaigned to change the way Washington works. So it would be both ironic but also fitting for him to extend a hand to his predecessor to begin to do that. Because cliff deal or no cliff deal, otherwise this dysfunction is here to stay.

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