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Satullo: Citizens starting to see dangers of gerrymandering

Do you remember the film Lincoln? Recall Daniel Day-Lewis' riveting depiction of a crafty, urgent Abraham Lincoln doing whatever it took to get Congress to approve the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery?

Do you remember the film Lincoln?

Recall Daniel Day-Lewis' riveting depiction of a crafty, urgent Abraham Lincoln doing whatever it took to get Congress to approve the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery?

By Hollywood standards, the movie got the history pretty right. That includes the parts where Lincoln - our greatest president - deploys unsavory intermediaries to offer federal jobs to lame-duck Democratic congressmen in return for their yes votes.

Bribe is such an unpleasant word, but the man in the stovepipe hat sure worked the old quid pro quo pretty hard.

Recent events in Washington have had me thinking back to Day-Lewis' Lincoln.

I recently wrote a piece trying to debunk some of the stubborn canards that get attached to Obamacare.

An angry emailer wrote back: "The ACA law only came into being through lies, bribes, arm twisting, and legislative gymnastics!"

To which I replied: "As for arm-twisting and legislative gymnastics - as well as sweeteners (what you call bribes) - that is how every major piece of legislation in the history of the nation has gotten passed."

Even by the sainted Mr. Lincoln.

Such grimy tactics have always been the WD-40 that enables compromise and incremental progress, helping to nudge the rock up toward that city set upon a hill.

This pragmatism was notably absent in the recent Ryan-Trumpcare debacle.

Key players in that collapse were members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, who pride themselves on their ideological purity and wouldn't consider backing a bill that didn't conform precisely to their (dubious) preconceptions.

Somehow, we've gotten to a point in our national politics where rigid intransigence gets hailed as courage - and compromise blasted as cowardice. That gets things exactly backward.

How did we reach this sorry pass? Culprits abound, but chief among them is gerrymandering.

Freedom Caucus members might not even be in Congress - certainly not in a number big enough to form an obstructionist bloc - were it not for this foul partisan habit.

Gerrymandering is the technique of drawing legislative districts to ensure that favored incumbents face no serious competition in general elections. Parties in power in state capitals draw bizarre, wandering boundaries to maximize partisan advantage (often with the cooperation of minority-party incumbents, who will screw voters and democracy as long as their precious seat is safe).

Gerrymandering is a big reason why our legislatures have grown more partisan and ideological, more nasty and inept, more prone to gridlock and paralysis.

In any book about the national festival of gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 Census, Pennsylvania is the first chapter. The crazy quilt map that Harrisburg Republicans concocted in 2011 had this result: Even in 2012, when 51 percent of the votes cast for U.S. House candidates statewide went to Democratic candidates, Republicans held a 13-5 edge in the state delegation.

To be clear, on the rarer occasions when they gripped the pen last time, Democrat showed themselves to be as ruthlessly self-interested.

This is the real election rigging - and it's been going on a long time.

Wait, you ask, how exactly does gerrymandering lead to pigheaded displays like the one the Freedom Caucus just put on? (Not that I'm sorry Ryan's bill failed, but still . . .)

Here's how: When districts are drawn to be a slam dunk for one party, incumbents need not worry about losing a general election. They don't have even to pretend to listen to moderates and independents. No, their only risk is a primary challenger from the ideological fringes of their party, blasting them as insufficiently pure.

Knowing this, Freedom Caucus members had to chuckle when an exasperated President Trump threatened to come after them politically. As if.

To reiterate, the fault of gerrymandering lies not with any particular party. The core problem is the very idea that politicians should hold the redistricting pen.

When you think about it, that's crazy. We're letting pols choose their voters, rather than the other way around. It's like letting job applicants decide the list of questions in a job interview. No sane boss would agree to that. So why do we, the voters, the bosses of this democracy, allow it?

Some states, California most recently, have shifted to a sound solution: using independent citizen panels to draw the lines.

A constitutional amendment to that effect rattles around dusty corners of Harrisburg right now.

A coalition of good government groups called Fair Districts Pa. is pushing for it and is drawing astonishing crowds (750 on a chilly midweek evening in Philly) to its forums. Still, the process of passing a constitutional amendment in Pennsylvania is like a steeplechase race - very long with lots of hurdles.

But here's the thing. I've been howling in print about gerrymandering for more than a decade. Until now, I'd never seen aroused crowds like this, full of people who get the connections.

Something is happening here. And I don't know what is, Mr. Jones.

But it smells like hope.

Chris Satullo is a former Inquirer editorial page editor.