By Dick Morris - 03/09/05 12:00 AM EST
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has heard the message of President Bush’s stirring second inaugural address, promoting democracy and human freedom throughout the globe. He has initiated a ballot proposal for California that would extend the reach of free and fair elections to the farthest corner of our planet — the U.S. House of Representatives.
Schwarzenegger is proposing to overturn the ridiculously partisan gerrymandering of the congressional and state legislative seats in California and would give the power to draw new lines to a nonpartisan commission of retired jurists. Patterned after the highly successful nonpolitical reapportionment process in Iowa, Schwarzenegger’s plan would force a dose of democracy down the throats of the state Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation.
Partisan gerrymandering has almost eliminated the right of election of the lower house of our Congress, intended by the Framers to be the more democratic of the houses. All told, fewer than 25 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives are marginal swing districts, the deliberate result of a bipartisan deal to carve up the seats in state after state between the political parties. Senate seats are now more competitive than are House seats for one simple reason: The politicians cannot gerrymander state lines.
In California, for example, no incumbent was defeated in 2004 and only one — Gary Condit — lost his seat in 2002 out of the 54 members of the state’s congressional delegation.
After the census of 1980, in the elections of 1982, 41 incumbents lost their seats, as they had to run in their new districts. After the 1990 census, 39 incumbents sought and failed to secure reelection. But after the 2000 census, and the bipartisan deal-making, only 16 members failed to win reelection and eight lost when they were pitted against fellow incumbents as a result of their states’ shrinking population.
In California — and in New York — deals were cut to protect incumbents from defeat after the new district lines were drawn. Registered Democrats were put into districts represented by Democrats. Republicans were delighted to ensure these Democratic congressmen a free ride so that they could empty Democratic voters out of the swing districts on which control of Congress depended. The Democratic Party, essentially, agreed to trade a lifetime tenure in the Congress for its existing members for any real shot at regaining control of the House until after the 2012 apportionment.
In Iowa, by contrast, the commission that draws the lines for House districts is expressly prohibited from considering incumbency, party or voting patterns in reapportionment. As a result, three of the 25 districts that are considered competitive in House elections are located in tiny Iowa, with only 1 percent of the nation’s population.
Schwarzenegger’s initiative would transform the national political landscape and make the huge California delegation subject, once again, to democratic selection. The Putin-esque attempts of both parties to fix the electoral process by skillful gerrymandering will be overturned. And, more important, California will set a precedent that one hopes will be copied by other states — including New York — in the future.
Naturally, the politicians in Sacramento are doing their best to frustrate the governor’s proposals. Claiming that they are open to negotiations to accomplish the ends of his ballot proposition, they are attacking him for going over their heads to the people in his initiative. But their cries of alarm are totally phony.
After all, it is they who committed the sin of gerrymandering in the first place. It is to undo their deals that the governor is courageously going directly to the people.
Schwarzenegger’s other major proposal is to require that public-school teachers be paid based on their merit, not on their seniority. New York’s supposed friends of education have fallen in line behind the teachers union’s opposition to merit pay and have toed the line in support of seniority-based compensation. But Schwarzenegger recognizes that only by rewarding competence and punishing failure can we provide quality education to our children.
Schwarzenegger is pointing the way. One can only hope that New York’s politicians will follow. Fat chance.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.