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Op-Ed: Government Shutdown Reveals Politicians Out of Touch With Voters

'Safe' districts emphasize party loyalty above everything else, including the will of the people

I don’t know about you, but I have not talked with one person who thinks the government shutdown is a good idea. Even people who think Obamacare (technically, the Affordable Care Act) stinks and should be repealed think the Congressional impasse and potential fiscal default is a bad idea.

So how did we get to the point where our elected representatives in Congress vote and vote and vote to continue the impasse knowing full well that most Americans disagree with their votes? What ever happened to “representative democracy” as our Founding Fathers (sorry, there were no founding mothers at the Constitutional convention) envisioned?

I believe a root cause is the decennial redistricting of Congressional districts that has created fewer and fewer “contested” districts, so that the incumbents feel more beholden to their respective political party than to the voters in their Congressional district. The same trend is occurring in our New Jersey state Legislature. With the ridiculously high costs of campaigning for election, to have a “safe” district as an incumbent has led these officeholders to worry more about pleasing the party leadership than pleasing their constituents.

Just hear Congressman Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas, speaking about a possible deal that did not deal with the conservative agenda. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.” As long as they can secure the party nomination every election, the chances of losing their seat in these “safe districts” are pretty low. Job security is a powerful motivator.

Our second President, John Adams, was adamantly opposed to the creation of political parties. While it is impossible to imagine our nation without political parties, I don’t think even Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and the other early advocates for political parties would be happy with today’s situation.

It is high time to find a different way to ensure that our elected representatives once again care more about what their constituents want than taking instruction from the political party leaders about what they think is best for the party.

One approach is to get at the root and revise the redistricting statutes.

Other states have begun to address this concern, as NJ Spotlight has reported. The efforts seem to focus on two points of impact. One is to mandate some specific areas of concern the redistricting commission must address with high level of prominence given to creating contested districts. The other effort is in the composition of the commission itself to require a majority of members with no vested interest in the outcome.

In New Jersey, we probably need an alloy of both. The legislation could require members of the redistricting commission to be appointed in two ways. A minority of the members could be appointed by the Senate president and Assembly speaker, giving the legislative branch the opportunity to appoint some experienced legislators with the caveat of bipartisan equality.

The majority of the members could be appointed by the state Supreme Court Chief Justice, or if the Chief Justice does not yet have tenure, then the longest-serving tenured Justice. Citizens could submit applications to the Court for selection to the commission. The Court would consider party affiliation, if any, as well as other qualifications.

The substantive part of the legislation could require a list of specific areas of concern the commission must address and prioritize. The creation of a minimum number of contested districts should be at the top of the priority list.

Finally, whatever the revisions are, there should be transparency throughout. Who knows, voter turnout might even increase.

Peter S. Reinhart is a member of NJ Spotlight's board of governors.

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