A month ago, it was clear that voters would blame Republicans if Congress went ahead with the for the so-called “Sequester”—some $85 billion in automatic government-wide spending cuts.
I thought this meant that Republicans would be forced to back down, call off the Sequester, and accept the fact that if we want to reduce the deficit, we’ll need to raise some taxes while also cutting spending.
I was wrong. The sequester took effect March 1 and Republicans aren’t budging.
The public does, in fact, blame the GOP for the budget stalemate that has led to the sequester: a recent CNN poll shows that shows that only 38 percent say they have a “favorable view ”of the Republican Party, versus 54 percent who view it unfavorably.
Why Republicans Aren’t Worried
Yet House Republicans are not terribly concerned about what voters think. This is because, back in 2010, they succeeded in re-drawing election district lines in many swing states in a way that creates “safe districts” for Republicans—districts where they have a solid majority. They feel untouchable. At the same time the new boundaries pack as many Democrats as possible into as few districts is possible.
This is a major reason why Democrats didn’t win a House majority in 2012, even as their congressional candidates drew about 1.4 million more votes than Republicans nationwide, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. And, Bloomberg notes, the redistricting “will hinder the Democrats from regaining control of the chamber in 2014.”
District lines are re-drawn once a decade, right after the U.S. census is taken. The last census took place in 2010, and that year Democrats saw massive losses at the polls. As a result, the GOP controlled state government in key states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. This gave Republicans the power to draw congressional district lines. They seized that chance, aggressively “gerrymandering” so as to protect Republican incumbents while isolating Democrats. The fact Democrats are concentrated in urban areas made their task easier. Nevertheless, creative cartography led to some crazy designs. For instance, Bloomberg points out, “Michigan’s 14th congressional district looks like a jagged letter ’S’ lying on its side.”
In the past both parties have played this game. Though in 2010, Republicans took it over the top: It is rare for one party to win more House seats, while garnering fewer votes.
The effect of gerrymandering is to make what the majority of voters want irrelevant. More than 50% of Americans favor a deficit reduction plan that would increase taxes rather than cutting spending on education, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and infrastructure. (Americans prefer spending cuts to tax hikes in only three areas: energy, jobless benefits, and defense.
Democrats are proposing a budget plan that matches voters; druthers: it would raise taxes and trim spending—without renting safety nets (a.k.a. “entitlements). But House Republicans are adamant: no new revenues from taxes. And because they don’t fear losing their jobs, they are likely to stand fast.
Today we saw a bit of relief. The Senate passed a bill funding the government beyond a March 27th shutdown deadline. This legislation is expected to clear the House, and it may allow for some flexibility in the allocation cuts. For example, the Senate has approved a proposal to shift some $55 million in Department of Agriculture funds to prevent temporary layoffs of meat inspectors.
Nevertheless $85 billion will be taken out of government programs, and Draconian cuts will continue to take an unacceptable toll.
Just one poignant example: On the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, scholarships for children of troops who diedfighting in Iraq or Afghanistan are being slashed. As of March, the dollar amount for each new scholarship is being reduced by 37.8%. As a result, each student who applies for a scholarship this year will receive roughly $21000 less than he or she would have received last year.
The Map-making of 2010 Is Not Carved in Stone
Democrats in some states have begun to challenge the lines drawn in 2010. California has created a non-partisan independent commission to set election boundaries. In North Carolina, the state’s Superior Court has heard a case arguing that the GOP shoe-horned African-American voters into a small number of districts, limiting their power to influence election results.
If we don’t want to see the same cast of characters in Congress for the rest of the decade, more suits are needed.