An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Safe and Lazy

Working to craft sound public policy that meets the needs of constituents and Americans, in general, and providing strong service to the people of your district or state should be the goal of any good Member of Congress. Most such officials, as well as state and local officials, are only too eager to hear from constituents and generally try to solve the problems, or listen to the opinions, of the people who elect them. This is an important way to participate in our political process and OnBackground strongly encourages active participation in your democracy. For tips on doing so, see: http://capwiz.com/boma/issues/basics/?style=comm

Unfortunately, that doesn't always work because there is a flaw in our system called redistricting. As you probably know, every ten years, based on the results of the national census that counts population, states are apportioned Members of Congress and then legislatures draw lines for congressional districts within states. As featured on June 18 in OnBackground, this frequently leads to game playing, such as when legislatures make incumbents very safe in their reelection bids by packing districts with people of the same party, deliberately excluding challengers, etc. Another flaw in the system is that there is a custom, often enforced by the parties, that frowns on challenges to incumbents by members of their own parties.

Now I agree as much as the next person that our leaders need some time and space to make decisions without constantly looking at polls or fearing for their survival. The founders worked hard to balance the need of leaders to be both representative and yet able to act on their consciences. However, legislators or executives too insulated from the people who elect them are ripe for despotism. More subtly, Senators and Representatives who know that they effectively will not be challenged have no incentive to listen to the people or to provide good constituent service. Both parties have this problem, but for today I'd like to use examples from the Democrats.

First, Rep. Al Wynn, is an African-American incumbent Democrat in a majority African-American Democratic Maryland district to the immediate east of DC. His constituents long ago realized that he does not respond to inquiries or requests, but there is nothing they can do about it. Republicans and Democrats who run against him do not get party, monetary or activist support, so only cranks run, and, more importantly, his constituents have no voice and receive no service. I won't get into a long discussion of how his somewhat moderate policy preferences neither reflect nor serve his district here, because it does not matter since he is safe. A flaw in our system. See: http://www.newsline.umd.edu/politics/specialreports/elections02/photofourth091102.htm

On the other hand, Rep. Dennis Moore (KS) is incredibly focused on serving and responding to the needs of the largely upper middle class, white population in suburban Kansas City and college town Lawrence that reelected him in November with a very narrow margin. While Moore is not the brightest Member of Congress http://www.rollcall.com/pub/48_82/, his moderate views largely reflect those of his district and his staff do yeoman's duty to serve his constituents. I cannot help but think that he and his staff work so hard principally because they know that their jobs hang in the balance.

All too often government seems to arcane and we, in our busy lives, opt out of it because we just don't have the time. The problem is, if we waive our right to elect our leaders, what is democracy? Make them sweat a bit, get involved!