Gerrymandering Is Not to Blame for the Speaker Mess

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 16, 2023 · 5:37 PM EDT

Whenever something goes wrong on Capitol Hill, gerrymandering is cited as the root of the problem. But while redistricting continues to be a blatantly political act in most states, Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster is a good example of why gerrymandering is not always the cause of chaos in Congress.

“Congress arrived at this point for myriad reasons, all of which build on one another, scholars say: Social media and cable news incentivized politicians to perform for the camera, not for their constituents. Aggressive gerrymandering created deeply partisan districts where representation is decided in primary contests, not general elections. Weakened political parties became captive to their loudest and most extreme members,” according to a story in The Washington Post. “Taken together, those factors handed a small number of lawmakers the power to throw one of the three branches of government into disarray and, for now, paralysis.”

I am not a scholar, but there’s more nuance in those supposed corrosive causes than most people probably realize. 

The most commonly suggested antidote for gerrymandering is to take the map-making process out of the hands of partisan legislators. And yet most of the eight Republicans who voted to get rid of McCarthy represent districts drawn outside of the typical partisan legislative process.

GOP Reps. Ken Buck (Colorado’s 4th District), Eli Crane (Arizona’s 2nd), Andy Biggs (Arizona’s 5th) and Matt Rosendale (Montana’s 2nd) all come from states where lines were drawn by an independent redistricting commission. (A tie-breaking member chose the GOP plan in Montana, but it was still drawn through the commission process.)

A fifth anti-McCarthy Republican, Bob Good, represents the 5th District of Virginia, which has an independent/politician commission, but the congressional map was ultimately drawn by special masters and chosen by the state Supreme Court after the commission failed to unite around a new map.

Just three of the eight Republicans who voted to vacate the chair represent districts drawn by Republican-controlled legislatures: Tim Burchett (Tennessee’s 2nd), Matt Gaetz (Florida’s 1st) and Nancy Mace (South Carolina’s 1st). 

That indicates something more than, or other than, partisan redistricting is to blame for the current dysfunction on Capitol Hill. 

There’s also more involved here than having “safe” congressional districts. Republicans have a 32-point advantage in Burchett’s Tennessee district, according to Inside Elections’ Baseline, which measures the average performance of candidates over the most recent four election cycles. 

But 51 Republicans who represent districts with a higher Republican performance voted to keep McCarthy as speaker. Gaetz was the only Republican who opposed McCarthy from a district with a higher GOP performance than Burchett’s. Rep. Jim Banks represents a northeast Indiana district with nearly the same GOP performance as Gaetz’s seat, and yet Banks was not a part of the small faction that wanted to get rid of McCarthy. 

The dysfunction is also driven by personality and motivations. 

Being contrarian and the cause of gridlock generates attention. Wherever Gaetz goes lately, there’s a crowd of reporters. The natural progression is to then blame the media for making him the center of attention. But it’s not that simple. 

The media’s job is to cover the news, and Gaetz made news with his plan to get rid of the Speaker of the House. The media also amplifies the loudest, and sometimes most partisan and abrasive voices, but consumers reward that coverage with eyeballs and clicks. If people really wanted stripped-down political coverage, then C-SPAN would be the most-watched cable news channel in the country. (It’s not, although viewership apparently skyrockets when Republicans take hours to elect a Speaker.)

Like some of the experts in the Post article, I agree that the incentive structure is flawed. But voters and Americans incentivize aggressive behavior with their clicks, donations, and votes (or lack thereof). It’s not necessarily the structure itself. If more people rewarded civility and voted in primaries, we’d have a more civil Congress.

Overall, I’m agnostic on redistricting reforms, but blaming gerrymandering for everything that’s wrong with politics is lazy.