Drawing the Line on Redistricting

Washington Matters

Drawing the Line on Redistricting

Compromise and cooperation have to begin at the beginning -- with the way congressional districts are drawn.

“The Hammer,” as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is known, got nailed, but don’t look for big changes in Washington as a result.

Too bad, because last week’s conviction of DeLay on money laundering and conspiracy charges offers an opportunity to set clear rules about money in politics and to come down hard on those who break them. Above all else, the case provides an opportunity to remove politics from the redistricting process.

That this won’t happen shouldn’t come as a surprise. DeLay’s conviction caused a few ripples inside the beltway, but, like the ethics case against Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., it won’t change anyone’s behavior. Some lawmakers will always look for ways to bend the rules and a small number will get caught. But the penalties are usually light and memories are short -- for both elephants and donkeys -- so the DeLay case is destined to become a footnote in a chapter of history that might be called “Missed Opportunities.”

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The charges against DeLay stemmed from the redistricting fight that followed the 2000 Census. In court, both sides agreed that a political action committee started by DeLay raised $190,000 from corporations and sent the money to the Republican National Committee, and that the same amount of money went to seven Republicans running for the state House in Texas in 2002. What they disagreed about is the legality of the transfer. Prosecutors contended, and the jury believed, that the transaction violated Texas laws barring corporations from contributing to state candidates. The defense said no laws were broken.


With DeLay’s help, six of the seven candidates won in 2002 and Republicans took over the Texas House for the first time in more than a century. They approved a congressional redistricting plan he was behind. In 2004, the GOP picked up six U.S. House seats in Texas, helping fuel DeLay’s short-lived dream of establishing a permanent Republican majority in Washington.

A lesson that could be learned, but won’t be, is that messes such as this wouldn’t happen if the redistricting process was depoliticized. It already is in some states, including California, where voters just approved a ballot proposition calling for congressional boundary lines to be set by a panel of five Republicans, five Democrats and four individuals not affiliated with either party. With Republicans on the verge of picking up more than 15 seats – perhaps as many as 25 -- in next year’s redistricting, it’s far too late to make the change for this cycle. But it would make perfect sense, and give both parties time to accept the change, to make a decision soon that would kick in for the redistricting round that would follow the 2020 Census. Naïve? Perhaps. But the move to take redistricting decisions out of the hands of the party in power, which is how reapportionment is handled in 38 states, has at least one big Republican backer.

In his just published memoir, Decision Points, former President George W. Bush writes: “Our government would be more productive -- and our politics more civilized -- if congressional districts were drawn by panels of non-partisan elders instead of partisan state legislatures. This would make for more competitive general elections and a less polarized Congress” by creating more politically balanced districts likely to favor more-moderate candidates.

Such a Congress might be more willing to do what is best for the economy, or anything else, instead of what is best for the party holding power at the time. Imagine that.


But such a move would require state-level politicians to give up some of the power they crave. Forget that Bush says changing reapportionment rules would help “future presidents looking to tackle a big problem.” Asking a politician to voluntarily surrender power is akin to suggesting someone with a two-packs-a-day habit cut back to just one smoke. It won’t happen.