Fight Club Politics: a must-read for political junkies

Dissecting the roots of sky-high incumbent reelection rates and hyperpartisanship in the House of Representatives has helped professors of political science earn tenure, provided grist for op-ed writers and enthralled political junkies for a generation. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin takes a takes a stab at explaining the ugly state of the House in her new book, Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives.

Analyzing why Congress has become the best tenured job in the meanest and most cutthroat environment in the country is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is it the advantages of incumbency or partisan gerrymandering that protects incumbents?

Eilperin argues that lawmakers’ unwillingness to work together stems from partisan gerrymandering. If state legislatures or the Congress could find a way to draw congressional districts that is fair to both parties, to challengers and incumbents, to minorities and other underrepresented voting blocs, the lower chamber of Congress could be more responsive to the populace.

Instead, we have 400 of 435 members who return to their districts and only speak to audiences of nodding heads.

There are some telling anecdotes. In one, Reps. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.) crossed paths with former Rep. Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.) way before their eventual meeting in Congress.

Montgomery, as a Mississippi National Guardsman, escorted Filner and Lewis from the Alabama-Mississippi state line to Jackson during the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1962. They all later served together in Congress. Political writers are hard-pressed to find ideological diversity like that today — in either party.

Analyzing the House as it has operated since the Republicans won control for the first time in 40 years in 1994, Eilperin argues that both parties can be blamed for the rise in partisanship. Democrats started the current trend as they strengthened their grip in the 1980s and early 1990s as their majorities shrunk and the Republicans, led by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), became more aggressive.

Eilperin traces the rise in distrust and animosity in the Republican-controlled House. The decision by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to name a Protestant minister instead of a Catholic priest as the House chaplain led some Democrats to accuse him of being insensitive to Catholics. The impeachment of President Clinton, and Republicans’ increasingly hard-nosed procedural tactics designed to cut off debate and narrowly win votes, deepened the divide.

Eilperin might have raised a good question for a graduate student in political science: How does a party with a slim majority of a dozen or two dozen seats run the House without resorting to undemocratic tactics? Would Democrats, if they win control in November, resort to the same tactics? Former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) tells Eilperin, that yes, if Democrats were in charge they might rely on the very same tactics Republicans have used.

But without a groundbreaking theory of why the House has become so mean-spirited and ineffective, we’re still left with the chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is it redistricting or incumbents’ length of tenure?

Still, Eilperin adds to our understanding of Congress, and as a short history of the House Fight Club Politics should be required reading for political-science students, news editors and reporters, as well as junkies.

Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives
By Juliet Eilperin
Rowman & Littlefield, 2006
176 pages, $19.95