Redistricting no guarantee of greater state influence
In the late 1970s, when Pennsylvania still had a comparatively healthy complement of 25 congressmen, a statewide magazine sized up the capabilities of the men then serving. The judgment was not equivocal. For anyone believing that era represented some sort of political golden age, the report delivered the disillusioning evaluation: “Pennsylvania’s Dismal Congressional Delegation.” This is a good reminder that political competition is not necessarily commensurate with political clout.
Abundant attention is being paid to the controversial state Supreme Court decision invalidating the congressional map in place since 2011. Considerable advocacy on the part of community activists is being poured into shifting to a commission for the every ten years responsibility of redrawing district lines to reflect changes in population. Projections are for our state to shed another district. That creates a larger concern, irrespective of whether Republicans or Democrats win more seats in this cycle and the next.
When the dust settles on the flap over the lines, the districts will have more elegant shapes. Whether these districts are indeed fairer is being vigorously argued in the court of public opinion. But all this political and legal tussling over the preliminaries has obscured the overriding importance of the end game. Will our political influence and impact in Washington be enhanced? The answer to that rides on variables beyond less politically-tinged lines and more competitive districts.
A political operative pleased by the court-dictated redraw said this will make Pennsylvania a player in congressional elections. So far, so good, perhaps, but what most people want is for Pennsylvania to be a player in congressional actions, on budgets and laws and policies. That of course is an entirely different dynamic and measure.
The new map will have mixed results for the fortunes of the men and women who are politically inclined. Some will see improved prospects for election; others will see hopes and groundwork undone. What few seem focused on is that this dispute will make it even more difficult to get uninvolved individuals interested in politics and receptive to making a run for Congress.
No matter which side is perceived as coming out ahead in this political tug-of-war over electoral advantage, the public interest loses something. From the typical citizen perspective, none of our institutions has distinguished itself. Already low marks in public confidence ratings seem sure to slide again.
Pennsylvania could well end up with a better redistricting process and a worse environment for recruiting capable candidates. How can this be? The toxic nature of campaigns has been compounded by a visible and disconcerting demonstration of how partisan infighting can suddenly upend the rules of engagement.
That, in turn, adds to worries about the influence Pennsylvania will have in Congress going forward. With the anticipated loss of a seat following the next census, the numerical impact of our delegation will diminish. The pool from which we hope outsized talent and ability will emerge is smaller by one. Will the individuals returning and freshly elected step up Pennsylvania’s game?
Competitive elections, in general concept, are a desirable thing for democracy. But the dramatic shifting of lines this close to an election short-circuited several well-developed campaigns. Ironic that improving overall party prospects foreclosed possibilities for folks who could have translated paper advantage into actual representation. True, living in a congressional district is not a requirement for running, but most voters tend to regard it as a fundamental qualification. Add in the scorched earth nature of campaigns where seats are truly in play, and the march of candidates may not be all that impressive.
For a lot of capable people, a more realistic chance of winning office is not enough inducement to run. It is a hard sell to convince someone to pour money and energy into braving the gauntlet of character assassination and reputation smirching campaigns have become, especially when the significant personal, professional, and family sacrifices are factored in. Political turmoil in the Commonwealth atop that in Washington does not make for much of a “We Want You” candidate recruiting poster.
Few people profess themselves satisfied with the low levels of political discourse. But the cure for that is about as palatable as daily doses of castor oil – a return to civility as a standard. Individuals and groups regularly using the formula of divide, denigrate, and demonize toward those not one hundred percent in agreement effectively undercut the value of the reforms they are pursuing. Our problem in public debate is not just the voices unheard; it is also the voices of reason and sense and decency that are run roughshod over. This too discourages good people from becoming candidates.
Pennsylvania is already assured of losing experience and savvy because of retirements. Whatever anyone thinks of the individuals or their reasons, they have been influential and involved players making a difference. For those who believe that ousting incumbents is the only way to fix things, this may be encouraging. But the rest of us realize the hill Pennsylvania must climb to achieve impact just got higher.
This is not to diminish the significance of a better redistricting process. Rather, it is to point out even popular advances in policy hold unintended consequences in practical application. As the opening story illustrated, there are always dips in congressional delegation effectiveness, no matter the size of complement or the prevailing political climate.
Nevertheless, the current mess is an unusual and difficult conjunction of disruptive events. An election is just the start of things, and no guarantee of a productive result. That only comes about if more people devote themselves to encouraging participation by a broader swath of intelligent and well-intended citizens.
Put another way, rehabbing the machinery of democracy will only have the hoped-for benefits if the machinery is better run by we the people.
Atkinson is an associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies in Hershey.