Passing by the hall of shame

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published October 31st 2006 in The Guardian
The Democrats now seem on the verge of taking back at least the House of Representatives in November, but if they do it their majority will not exactly amount to a landslide. Don't get me wrong; if I were a ranking Democrat in Congress, I'd be salivating at the prospect of getting a fat new committee chairmanship come 2007. But with a Democratic majority of very small proportions, I've got to ask - how many more congressional scandals needed to happen to create a comfortable majority for the Democrats?

The Republicans' liabilities grow every day, with an ever-more-unpopular Iraq war, a case of corruption as contagious as a case of the common cold, and now a slew of "October surprises" - damaging revelations that surface at the last minute. What more convincing did voters need to start pushing the country in a new direction?

In the Senate, Democrats need five seats to reach a majority, and the national climate gives some partisans hope they may eke it out. States seen previously as unwinnable, such as Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia have entered the realm of possibility for 2006. Still, in the unlikely event the Senate switches over, their margin will be thin.

If the Senate hangs in the balance by a single seat, we could see some parlour games. Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, defeated in the Democrat primary election by a candidate representing anti-war forces, is now an Independent. The same anti-Bush movement that threatens to deliver the House to the Democrats clearly fuelled this loss. In a 50-50 chamber however, Republican leadership could richly reward Senator Lieberman if he bolted and switched parties, just as then majority leader Tom Daschle rewarded the newly Independent Jim Jeffords when he switched and delivered the Senate to the Democrats in 2001.

That scenario might not be very likely, but what would a Lieberman switch in the Senate, alongside a knife-thin Democratic majority in the House mean for America? Well, it certainly doesn't portray a very responsive Congress. America's political plumbing resembles nothing so much as the shower water that takes ages to change temperature after the dial is turned.

The reason that this nationwide popular outcry will not translate into a commensurate change in our government is rooted in our election system. Because of the first-past-the-post dynamics of our single member districts, combined with the power incumbents amass through campaign cash and constituent service, it takes a big nationwide swing to effect even a small change. To see a significant number of seats change hands, the margins have to be driven up to a majority in a majority of districts, which requires a seismic shift in national opinion. Indeed, the Democrats held the House of Representatives from 1954 to 1994 despite the White House changing partisan control five times.

Britain has the exact same problem with its elections, and uses the same first-past-the-post system in its constituencies. But at least the recognition of that reality has entered into public opinion.

Everyone is familiar with Peter Snow's weird Swingometer, which I had a chance to see during the 2005 general elections in the UK. The next day, some commentators decried the unfair geographic advantage that boosted Labour. To be honest, the hallucinogenic animated world Peter Snow lives in is a bit too terrifying for me, but America could benefit from a different import. We need to bring the same perception - that the disconnection between seats and votes is an issue of concern - into the public consciousness in the US.

This applies no matter which party is in power. The state of Massachusetts, for example, has an entirely Democratic congressional delegation. But appearances can be deceiving. The state is home to hundreds of thousands of Republicans and millions of Independents, enough to elect Republicans governors for more than a decade. Are their votes translating into real representation in Congress? Similarly, you will find plenty of disenfranchised Democrats in Utah.

A Lieberman-style party switch doesn't raise any alarm bells exactly - that's just politics. But it does illustrate how control of Congress has less to do with the will of the people than we may think. We should pay attention to that.

Whatever happens after the midterms, I hope one party doesn't just sulk while the other celebrates. We should take a long look at the outcome and see whether it adds up. After all, we shouldn't need a series of 10 congressional page scandals to achieve elections that accurately reflect the will of the voters.

Six maybe, but not ten.

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