The year that may matter most: 2010

Let’s face it: In our political world, all eyes already are laser-focused on election year 2008. This is fine and to be expected. But we also need to think long and hard about 2010, when we will once again see congressional redistricting based on the census.

Why is this on my mind? Because in both of my worlds — on K Street and on Main Street — there is constant and often negative talk about the notion of influence. Some express frustration that the influence of political parties on issues and elections has become too extreme. Others lament the influence of lobbyists and their apparent ability to cause gridlock and partisanship. Some even say lobbyists are a prime cause for a lack of serious national debate and resulting legislation that brings the country together.  

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In certain cases, it is fair to point fingers at special-interest groups, political parties and, indeed, lobbyists, when it comes to the significant impact they have on the legislative process. But almost never do we hear about the influence that the current redistricting situation has also had on the process. Though often overlooked, this point deserves serious discussion.

Political insiders know very well that there are only a handful of congressional seats each election that are “in play” and where a candidate from either party may have a shot of winning. The reason why this is so is because of redistricting, or what some would call “gerrymandering.”

As a former member of Congress and now as a lobbyist, I recognize the immediate benefits and drawbacks of a seat that is “locked in” for an extremely conservative or liberal politician. I myself never enjoyed the privilege. Throughout my tenure in the House, my district was roughly 50-50 in voting patterns. Decisions did not always come easily. Reelection was never certain.

Looking back, it would have been nice to have had a solid seat, as so many have today. However, I can also say that being in a divided district made me a better member, one who had to understand and practice the art of compromise.  

Today, however, many House seats are either hard right or left, and those seats beget a representative whose voting is also almost required to be hard right or left. For many, there is virtually no incentive for the age-old political compromise that makes the system work. In fact, if a member from an extreme right or left district were to compromise and work in a bipartisan fashion, that easily could be seen as a sign of weakness, a green light for a tougher candidate from the right or left to take an incumbent on in the primary.

I certainly can understand the realities of the day and the human desire to be reelected. However, I hope both political parties and the leadership will carefully weigh the benefits and the drawbacks of the current process as they prepare not only for the 2008 elections, but once again, the redistricting that will follow the 2010 census.

Some legitimate questions that could and should be asked (with the ever mindful political needs of each party) are: Is there a better way in dealing with the issue of redistricting that would better serve the country as a whole? Can we allow members more flexibility in expressing their thoughts and creativity to solve the country’s problems? Can we still allow each party to have a solid opportunity to succeed, but also allow the nation to benefit from an improved process?

Please understand that as a 40-year Washington veteran, I have become an absolute supporter of the institution of Congress and the American democracy that has built this nation. But every so often, I still think it is good to look back and ask what we can do better and how can the system be improved.

Before you think I am proposing something pie-in-sky, keep in mind we already have hope for change. The 2006 election clearly indicated a public interest in having a sense of balance in government. As a result, we are seeing more members of both parties working together.

This change is also slowly becoming evident even in presidential politics. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is being discussed as a serious potential candidate because he is independent and not beholden to the left or right. This is not to say Bloomberg could win the presidential election, but it is clear there is an appetite for a new and fresh approach to politics and government.

From my perspective, we either pay now or we pay later. Either we get this issue addressed or wait to be punished for failing to foster bipartisanship. If the current level of partisanship continues, people will tire of the process, and someone will pay the price for standing idle.

Again, parties need to take care of their interests, and yes, there will always be differences between groups. But the art of compromise and bipartisanship must be restored, and the coming 2010 redistricting provides that opportunity.   

Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-89.