Peter Callaghan: Our less-than-transparent contribution to gridlock

Staff writerOctober 6, 2013 

Up here in our remote corner of the contiguous 48 it’s easy to believe that the sordid culture that is Washington, D.C., is not our culture.

As ignored as we are, it’s natural to conclude that we have no role in the dysfunction.

But let’s not sell ourselves short. We’ve done our share to create the gridlock of Congress. We just manage to do it in a way that allows us to feel superior, to disguise our divided politics as political reform.

Much has been written about the four score of congressmen who have the country in the throes of a shutdown. Not even a majority of the House Republican majority seems able to prevent these anti-government conservatives from calling the shots.

But where, we ask, are the moderates who are privately just as disturbed by this result as the rest of us? Surely the GOP members from Washington — historically a more-pragmatic type — are leading the way to a solution.

Well no, not publicly anyway. House members like Dave Reichert of Auburn and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas are not among the 18 Republicans demanding a vote on a “clean” budget plan that does not defund federal health care reform or refuse to raise the borrowing ceiling.

As with the rest of the country, our politicians who pass as moderates have adjusted their politics as their districts were made more conservative by redistricting.

Take Reichert’s 8th District. While a Democrat has never won there, the district has favored Democrats for governor and president. But the last round of redistricting turned the 8th from a 50-50 proposition to one with a 54 percent tendency toward the GOP.

Beutler’s 3rd District took a similar path, being shifted from nearly 50-50 to 52 percent Republican. As compensation, Democrats got to make Adam Smith’s 9th District more liberal by 9 percentage points and make Rick Larsen’s 2nd District more than 4 percent more Democratic.

Yet, unlike states where redistricting is a blatant-but-transparent partisan act, our gerrymandering is done by a bipartisan commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. We tell ourselves this is a great reform that removes politics from the process when it only hides it.

Each party is allowed to protect its incumbents first. Next, a handful of swing districts are crafted from the remaining turf. The results are elections in which most politicians coast to easy re-election, worried more by challenges from within their parties than from without.

Given the political geography of the state, it is not possible to draw up 10 swing districts. Try crafting a Democratic district in Eastern Washington, for example. But in Western Washington it is not only possible, it has been done. The most-recent redistricting commission inherited four swing districts, maybe five, when they started work in early 2011.

A year later, they ended up with one swing district, maybe two.

Could our system be fixed? Probably not without a constitutional amendment to take politics completely out of the mix, a process that would require the support of the same legislators who benefit from the current format.

But the nonvoting and nonpartisan chair of the last commission did suggest a way to make it work a little better. In an email sent to the four partisan commissioners in October 2011, Lura Powell asked to attend the separate Democratic and Republican meetings and the one-on-one negotiations between the parties. Because none involved a quorum of voting members, none was open to the public.

Powell promised not to be intrusive but thought her presence might assure the public that the law and constitution were followed.

She was rebuffed.

“What are we to gain from her participation?” wrote the late Tom Huff to fellow GOP commissioner Slade Gorton.

I guess it depends on his definition of “we.” The partisans would have gained little from someone who might have urged that they follow open government laws and consider the needs of the general public, not just the office holders and the parties.

We, the residents and voters, however might have gained quite a bit.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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