Of all the arguments advanced by House Speaker John Boehner for refusing to increase tax rates on those making more than $250,000 a year, perhaps the phoniest is that the Republican hold on the U.S. House represents an anti-tax mandate.
He said so just before Election Day: “We’ll have as much of a mandate as he [President Obama] will … to not raise taxes.”
Sure, the argument goes, President Obama won re-election with 332 electoral votes (62 percent), more than George Bush’s 286.
But the state-by-state, winner-take-all Electoral College system exaggerated a 3 percentage-point advantage in the popular vote, and we hold 55 percent of the U.S. House.
The trouble is, while Obama won the Electoral College and the popular vote, the GOP got less than half the total vote in U.S. House races across the country. In fact, about half a million more citizens voted for Democratic congressional candidates.
The reason for the disparity lies in Republican control of redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional boundaries after the census. This is done at the state level. In most, it has become a highly partisan game.
Republicans had the advantage in most states, and they used it. In Ohio, Boehner’s home state, the results were particularly lopsided, Republicans winning 12 of 16 U.S. House races while President Obama and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown won re-election.
Congressional districts in Ohio are redrawn by the legislature, in a bill that goes to the governor. Since Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, they delivered for Boehner.
With Obama getting 3 percentage points more of the popular vote than Mitt Romney here, Ohio Republicans won 75 percent of the congressional districts, a margin so huge as to overwhelm other explanations, among them ticket-splitting and population patterns that show a concentration of poor and minority voters in urban areas.
The redistricting process has never been pretty, but Ohio’s highly cyclical brand of politics used to put a damper on things, each side fearing that going too far would invite retaliation. Both sides drew districts to their advantage, but a landslide at the top of the ticket could result in victories in congressional and legislative races, too.
With terms limits and today’s increasingly polarized style of politics, all restraints went by the boards after the 2010 census. It is hard to imagine Obama coattails long enough to have dragged Democrats to winning a majority of U.S. House seats from Ohio. Republicans drew oddly shaped districts that made little sense in terms of communities of interest. The overriding goal was to pack Democrats into as few safe seats as possible, opening up advantages for Republicans everywhere else.
Things were just as bad in legislature races. A board controlled by Republicans made sure the Ohio House and Senate stayed in GOP hands.
In races for the Ohio House, Democrats got more votes than Republicans, but Republicans appear headed to a 60-39 advantage. The Republican-dominated Ohio Supreme Court recently upheld the districts, a decision that left practically no legal barriers to future gerrymandering.
Ironically, the apportionment board that created state legislative districts (made up of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and a member of the legislature from each party) was itself originally a reform, breaking from the practice of the legislature drawing its own districts. The Ohio Constitution was also amended to include rules to minimize splitting political subdivisions.
Still, with congressional redistricting and legislative reapportionment, one party can seize control.
The time to fix this is now, before the next census looms on the horizon, clouding the judgment needed for compromise.
This week, a legislative task force indicated it is close to a compromise, based on putting a bipartisan group of officeholders in charge. A supermajority would be needed to pass new districts, with participation required from the minority party, forcing fairer results.
Although Democrats would like to redraw before the next census, they must compromise by waiting. Similarly, Republicans need to drop the idea of giving the task of reform to a special Constitutional Modernization Commission, where a compromise plan could too easily be stalled.
Failure to move soon will only contribute to more gridlock, now so apparent in Washington.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.