Opinion: California leading the way to a more functional Congress

The dark and dysfunctional 112th Congress, now drawing to its close, will go down in history as one in which the bad behavior of lawmakers led to a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating and the creation of the impending fiscal cliff.

The Gallup approval rating for this Congress, at one point, reached a historic low of 12 percent.

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This Congress passed the fewest bills of any Congress since the end of the Second World War. Now, there will be a lame-duck session and negotiations to put in place a temporary bridge to get past the fiscal cliff.

But the 112th Congress is still not likely to surpass the low number of bills approved by the Congress of 1947 — the one President Truman famously dubbed the “do-nothing Congress.”

Polarization and gridlock have paralyzed Congress. But now, a bright ray of hope for ending those twin curses is emerging from election results in California.

The optimism begins with changes in the system for electing lawmakers in the Golden State, home to the largest congressional biggest delegation.

In 2010, a diverse group of the state’s biggest political stakeholders — including the California Chamber of Commerce, the AARP and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — united to support a ballot proposition creating a bipartisan commission that redrew the geographic lines for California’s congressional districts.

The proposition also changed the rules for the general election.

The old system pitted the winners of the party’s primaries against each other. The new system provides for the two candidates with the most votes in an open congressional primary to move on to the general election — even if they belong to the same party.

Last Tuesday’s election in California was the first under the new map and new rules.

And the results are shaking up the political status quo.

Out of California’s 53 House races, seven incumbents lost their seats as they ran in more diverse districts — in which candidates had to appeal to more diverse neighborhoods and political groups.

That is far above the replacement rate in recent congressional elections.

Among the seven losers are some of the most politically hardline members of Congress.

For example, 80-year-old Democrat Pete Stark, who has been in Congress since 1973, is both dean of the California delegation and a hardline liberal.

He lost to a 30-year-old Democrat who finished second to Stark in the primaries and would not have been able to challenge him in the general election under the old rules.

Similarly, Democrat Laura Richardson, the focus of several ethics inquiries, lost to a fellow Democrat who would not have been able to challenge her in the general election under the old rules.

Another potential casualty of the new rules: Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, who opposed the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

The new lines for Bilbray’s district include more Hispanic voters, and they supported an immigration-friendly Democrat, Scott Peters.

Bilbray is trailing his opponent, but has yet to concede defeat.

Dan Lungren, another sharp-edged conservative, lost in his newly expanded, more diverse Sacramento County-based district to Ami Bera, an Indian-American.  

It is also worth noting that several longtime California incumbents like Reps. David Dreier, Jerry Lewis, Wally Herger, Elton Gallegy and Lynn Woolsey decided to retire this year.

Their decisions may have been based on the fact they would have had to run in newly drawn, more competitive districts.

Overall, 11 members of California’s 53-person delegation will be freshmen next Congress.

California’s incumbent members of the House had an 85 percent rate of reelection, but that is lower than House’s overall rate of 91 percent of returning incumbents.

The number of Latinos coming to Washington from California is increasing from six to nine, bringing more racial diversity to the Capitol.

Under California’s new system, entrenched incumbents are forced to defend their record and underdogs have a better chance to have their case for change heard by the voters.

Entrenched political machines and their money are less relevant.

Under this new system, the 24/7 news cycle and partisan bloggers, which encourage the loudest and most extreme voices, are not as able to define the race and control the outcome.

The bottom line is that voters have more choice among candidates competing for the middle ground, not to be a champion of one political extreme.

That is potentially creating a new brand of congressional politics.

In addition to California, 12 other states had their congressional redistricting maps drawn by an independent commission.

California is the most populous state in the union, and the election results there indicate these commissions could soon be adopted by other states.

They are also, potentially, a way to break the partisan gridlock in Washington.

This may be California dreaming. But our long congressional nightmare begs for any sign that Congress might be healing its broken system.   

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.