On Monday, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) announced he would not be re-seeking election in 2012. The decision from one of the more colourful members of Congress has met varying degrees of personal reaction from Washington insiders --- an interview on MSNBC explains some of the more acerbic appraisals of his character --- but on a practical level, it has highlighted two issues that have gone largely unnoticed.
The first is the number of Democrats in the House of Representatives who have indicated they will not be part of the fight to re-claim a majority. Frank is the 17th sitting Democrat to state he or she will not contest their current position, offering the narrative of "rats leaving a sinking ship" to their opponents: "Republicans said the two recent retirements would likely not be the last and indicated that Democrats saw the writing on the wall ahead of a presidential-election year where Obama’s low approval ratings are expected to drag down many...Democrats.”
Frank's retirement also points a second development changing the dynamics of next year's elections for the House of Representatives: the effects of redistricting.
Every ten years, the American political system undergoes --- or, more accurately, endures --- the redistricting process. This realignment of district boundaries to reflect demographic changes in the national census is, at first glance, a simple-enough matter. Some States get more seats in Congress and some States less to match population shift. This, however, is only the facade for some intense disagreements between the parties
Those disputes are nothing new --- the term "gerrymandering", creating new districts to ensure a party or individual holds a seat, has a long history (see separate EA feature). This week, the US Supreme Court, alongside a separate Department of Justice appraisal, is considering arguments about the validity of new districts in Texas in relation to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing the equal representation of minorities.
The dispute in Texas centres upon the traditional role of a state legislature in redrawing district boundaries. Inevitably, the party in control of the legislature tries to create new districts where its candidates have a better chance of winning. Even where control of the process is given to an "independent" commission, the battles continue: the Republican Governor of Arizona and the State Senate have attempted to impeach the independent member of the redistricting commission, because she was allegedly helping draft congressional maps favourable to Democrats.
The effects of redistricting have revealed a story with a more human dimension:
This year, several outgoing lawmakers have pointed to the once-in-a-decade redistricting process and the political hardships it presents as a key culprit in their decision making.
Among them: California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, whose Central Valley-area seat was dramatically recrafted.
“You have to represent people [who] you’ve never represented before,” Cardoza [said]. “To represent nearly half of new voters … well that’s not my idea of a good time.”
The press release announcing Cardoza's decision to retire does not mention his disillusionment with redistricting --- it is instead a scathing denunciation of the failure of the Obama Administration to understand the depth of the housing foreclosure crisis --- but Frank's announcement is more forthcoming:
The newly configured district [in Massachusetts] contains approximately 325,000 new constituents, many of them in a region of the state that is wholly new to me as a Member of Congress. A significant number of others are in the area along our east-west border with Rhode Island which I have not represented for 20 years. This means that running for reelection will require --- appropriately in our democracy --- a significant commitment of my time and energy, introducing myself to hundreds of thousands of new constituents, learning about the regional and local issues of concern to them and, not least importantly, raising an additional 1.5 to 2 million dollars.
This would compete with two other obligations which I neither want to nor can avoid. First, I will continue to represent hundreds of thousands of people in the current 4th District to whom I am committed as the person they voted for a year ago. I have acquired a strong attachment to many of the people and causes I have worked with here. The Congressional redistricting removes from the district I represent virtually the entire fishing industry of Southeastern Massachusetts. It very substantially reduces the number of Azorean-Americans I will represent, and again removes almost completely people of Cape Verdean ancestry. Introducing myself and learning about the new area while continuing to give the existing area the full representation it deserves would make demands of my time that would detract from my focus on the national issues.
There is another, equally important consequence of the fact that so many of the people in this district would be new constituents that help persuade me to announce my retirement. The obligation of a Member of Congress to work as an advocate for the people he represents on local and regional issues that require or involve Federal government response are of paramount importance. And I am proud of the work I have done in that regard for the people I have been privileged to represent over these years. But as in almost every case, where there were significant local or regional issues involving environmental matters, transportation matters, housing matters etc., it took more than two years to resolve them. The relevance is that running again for one more term, I would be asking 325,000 new constituents to give me the mandate to be their advocate with the federal government for only two years. Starting on a series of projects only to be passing them along in various stages of incompletion to a successor two years later is not a responsible way to act.
Sometimes, with the preoccupation with partisan deadlock in Washington, we forget the responsibilities of Congressmen and Congresswomen as representatives of their districts. As Frank's statement makes clear, it is an enormous job, hindered when every ten years redistricting can significantly alter the ethnic, economic, and cultural priorities of the constituents.
Despite the glee of the Republicans, the results of re-districting are expected to be minimal in 2012. The Cook Political Report projects that Republicans will gain only one seat in the House as a direct result of reapportionment and redistricting.
Instead, the stories of Cardoza and Frank points to a more damaging assessment: disillusionment at the way Congress operates. The words of the departing California Representative should be kept in mind in light of the acrimonious battles to be fought in the next eleven months:
As a leader of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, I am also disappointed by the broadcast media's general lack of attention to moderate members of Congress, and their failure to recognize those members of all ideologies who work together to build consensus and solve problems. The constant focus on ‘screamers’ and the ‘horse race’ of elections is smothering useful discourse and meaningful debate of public policy. This, in turn, is fueling the increasingly harsh tone in American politics. My experience tells me that those who shout the loudest, and give the most speeches, have the fewest good solutions for America’s challenges.