The national approval rating for Congress hovers around 18 percent, according to various polls. We think that figure speaks volumes about the disappointment most Americans feel about the House and Senate.
(We also think it speaks volumes about the 18 percent of Americans who apparently think Washington is working quite well. What’s wrong with them?)
Anyway, with this sort of approval rating, you might conclude most lawmakers are in trouble with the folks back home. Such a stark revelation of public opinion ought to signal a massive voter backlash. But that’s not the case. Most members of Congress enjoy what are called “safe” seats. Absent some sort of scandal or other unexpected turn of events, they face little danger of being thrown out of office.
And as Congress’ overall popularity drops, the number of safe seats seems to grow.
According to Nate Silver, the New York Times data analyst who picked 50 out of 50 states correctly in November’s presidential election, the House had 103 swing districts in 1992 — meaning they were up for grabs by either party. Today, Silver calculates that number at just 35.
The reason has to do with a process called gerrymandering. Both parties have gotten the practice of carving out safe districts down to a hard science.
We on the North Shore live in the birthplace of gerrymandering. The term was coined by The Boston Gazette in 1812, in reaction to a redrawing of the state Senate districts by then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Marblehead, who redrew the districts to favor his own party. One district ran in an irregular pattern from Lynn to Andover, then snaked along the northern bank of the Merrimack River to the sea. The shape reminded the newspaper of a salamander — thus the political term “Gerry-mander” was born.
As in Gerry’s day, congressional redistricting in most states is designed to serve the party in power and the incumbents who hold seats. Creating compact, sensible districts that serve constituencies is of little concern to those making the decisions.
Not only does the lack of competitive districts protect incumbents, it also contributes to the ideological gulf we are seeing in Washington. Basically, most incumbents in the House retain their seats by appealing to the activist voters in their district — either Democrats or Republicans. For most of these lawmakers, there is no incentive to reach across the aisle or talk about the need to compromise.