The Government Shutdown, in a Single Quotation

There’s more than enough recrimination to go around, this morning, for the Federal Government shutdown.

Speaker John Boehner took to the floor of the House of Representatives, last night, and tried out his impression of President Obama (video) — literally; I kid you not — who apparently told the speaker on the telephone: I’m not going to negotiate. I’m not going to negotiate — I’m not going to do this.

This morning, Claire McCaskill, Senator from Missouri, wondered whether Congress — all of them — had lost their minds. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the GOP’s insistence on using a government funding bill to delay the Affordable Care Act an example of the banana Republican mindset that comes out of the Tea-Party takeover of the House.

The Governemnt Shutdown, in a Single Quotation
John Culberson, Representative from Texas’ 7th District

There’s lots of blame. And I’m pretty sure that we all already know how to apportion it (*achem* — Ted Cruz). But whatever.

The most illuminating quote that I’ve seen so far about the government shutdown doesn’t come from anybody super high up in the leadership of the House or the Senate. It comes from John Culberson, Republican Representative from the Texas 7th. And it’s buried pretty far down in this morning’s New York Times coverage:

What was I elected for? To try to change the law on behalf of my constituents, to stand on my core principles and do my best to represent them ethically, honestly, based on the core principles we share.

The problem, obviously, is with the constituents.

Well, not the constituents, exactly, but how we determine which constituents get grouped together to form an electoral unit: the districting process.

The thing is that taken nationally, American voters are pretty centrist. Water finds its own level, as they say. And if the folks in L-shaped Western Houston — home of the Texas 7th — are a little on the conservative side, folks who are right next door — in the Houston’s Texas 9th — are a little bit liberal.

The Government Shutdown, in a Single Quotation
The congressional districts of Houston. Via govtrack.us

The L-shape, though, is where we run into trouble. Across the country, every ten years, partisan state legislatures get to decide how we’re going to lay out our electoral maps. And every ten years, the party that happens to be in power in a given state at a given moment makes sure that map favors them.

And so you get maps that are full of districts that look like weird squiggles and geometric anomalies, drawn not to make sure that the most people get the most say in the electoral process, but to make sure that incumbent congresspeople keep their jobs, and that new people from the right party get elected.

Sometimes it’s called gerrymandering. And it’s a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, if you’re a congressperson from, say, the Republican Party, getting to make your home in a nice, safe, crimson red district takes a load off your mind. Your biennial election can be a low-stress affair, and the constant drumbeat of fundraising pressure may thump a little less loudly for you.

But on the other hand, you live in fear of the zealots who are creeping up on you from your right flank. No matter how conservative you are, there’s always a Christine O’Donnell somewhere out there to your starboard side, waiting to challenge you in a primary election if you don’t meet the stringent requirements of Tea-Party purity, or the requirements of your Grover Norquist tax pledge, or what have you.

I make this a Republican example because it’s more of a problem on that side of the aisle. As the common wisdom goes: Republicans are scared of their base, and Democrats loathe theirs.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that when the folks we send to congress don’t represent a cross-section of the voters of the United States — when they represent a constituency that is largely homogeneous in terms of ideology — then of course the folks we send to congress are going to be ideologues. When eighty percent of poor John Culberson’s district is made up of people who believe that Obamacare is a nefarious government plot — outstripped in seriousness, perhaps, only by water fluoridation — then of course he cannot budge on that issue.

I believe Representative Culberson, and all the Culbersons out there, that they are indeed trying to ethically and honestly represent their constituents in the best way they know how.

But that’s really the problem, isn’t it?

They would be beaten with sticks from the far distant right if they made any sort of compromise to keep the government open. And for anything to change, there must first be a major overhaul of how we determine congressional districts in the United States. Elections must be made competitive.

Update: Watch, as last night’s Rachel Maddow Show takes on the districting issue.  She reports that just over a month ago, eighty Republican Representatives wrote to Speaker John Boehner, calling for a government shutdown if the Affordable Care Act were not defunded.  Those Representatives, she reports, largely come from districts that are drawn to be safely Republican seats:  their populations are less than ten percent Latino; the voters lean uniformly and strongly to the right; and in the last election, when President Obama won the popular vote by about five million votes, he lost in those districts by an average of twenty-three points.

Competitive districts, people!