By J.J. Balaban
As divided as Americans are about politics right now, there's one thing that nearly everyone agrees on: Congress is dysfunctional. Yet our state legislators in Harrisburg have found a way to make things even worse in Washington. Pennsylvania's new congressional map will result in legislators who are even less inclined to pursue moderate policies and bipartisan agreements.
At one level, this redrawing of Pennsylvania's congressional districts is a shameful partisan power grab. Gov. Corbett and the Republicans who run Harrisburg have drawn congressional districts that don't remotely reflect a state with a million more Democrats than Republicans. By clustering the Democrats into a handful of districts, their plan would make it highly likely that 12 or 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 members of Congress will be Republicans.
But upon closer inspection, the map is bad for all Pennsylvanians - Democrats, independents, and Republicans - because it unnecessarily divides communities. Instead of following the tradition of respecting county and municipality lines, the map would make it impossible for most people to know who their member of Congress is, which makes it impossible to hold them accountable. Depending on which block you live on in, say, West Norriton, you might be represented by one of three members of Congress, none of whom live nearby.
Moreover, it transforms districts that have been evenly balanced between the two political parties into districts that are predominantly Democratic or predominantly Republican. The result will be even further polarization in Washington as Pennsylvania's members of Congress will no longer face the political necessity of appealing to moderate voters. Instead, they'll focus on appealing to either strongly liberal or strongly conservative voters in order to avoid facing a primary from within their own parties.
There are plenty of politicians to blame for this plan, but the lion's share should fall on the two area Republicans who stand to benefit most from the plan: U.S. Reps. Pat Meehan of Delaware County and Jim Gerlach of Chester County. Both currently represent districts that cast a majority of votes for President Obama in 2008, so they pressured their allies in Harrisburg to give them districts with more Republicans, and the only way they could do that is by drawing districts that resemble modern art more than sensible government.
So Gerlach's district will now stretch from suburban Exton to rural farms in Lebanon County, near Harrisburg. Meehan's district could become even more ludicrous, stretching five counties from Meehan's Drexel Hill home to the Bucks County line to the outskirts of Lancaster and Reading. While they'll undoubtedly claim that they had no control over what is happening in Harrisburg, this plan was generated by their close political allies, and the chief senator behind the plan admitted publicly that members of Congress gave a great deal of input on how the maps should be drawn.
What politicians like Meehan and Gerlach don't understand is that most people fear politicians are looking out for themselves instead of the public. This redistricting plan has confirmed their worst fears. There is no rational basis for dividing neighborhoods in Eastern Montgomery County between congressional districts, other than a desire by Meehan and his allies to maximize the numbers of Republicans in his district.
Let's be clear: in some states, such as Maryland, Democrats have engaged in similar malfeasance. But that doesn't make it right to mimic that dysfunction here in Pennsylvania.
There are some who argue that redistricting is inherently partisan. To be sure, Pennsylvania would be better served by adopting a nonpartisan system, similar to what they do in Iowa. Any fair approach would yield maps much simpler and fairer. But even under the current system, we don't have to settle for this kind of abuse of power.
In 2005, Pennsylvania's state legislators demonstrated that they were looking out for themselves instead of the public by raising their own pay in the middle of the night. Public outcry forced them to revoke the pay raise. Now, a public outcry could force a reconsideration of this power grab. We, the public, have the power to pick up the phone and stop this. It's a question of whether we choose to exercise that power to demand better representation in Washington.