No map to a better way of running Congress [Commentary]


A quick look at Maryland's U.S. House of Representatives district map provides a clear picture of how the United States got in the position of threatening not to pay for things it already has paid for.

Before blasting the map of Maryland's congressional districts, though, it's worth taking a few lines of text to lay into the lummoxes we've elected who have repeatedly over the past few years come to the conclusion that it might be OK to not pay the nation's bills. Paying for things we've collectively already agreed to pay for is among the most basic of a government's responsibilities. A government that doesn't pay its bills very soon ceases to be a government because if it can't live up to its financial obligations - ranging from paying its employees to making payments on its debts - no one from potential employees to major financial institutions will be interested in contact with that government.

Our national government, which is obliged to pay attention to each of the country's 400 million people, has collectively agreed to spend money on some things that some of those 400 million people find objectionable. There's no need to get into specifics. Just about any adult can come up with a thing or two, or even a long list, that could be cut.

It's probably fair to say, though, that no two lists are the same. One person's pork barrel project is another person's cutting edge research funding.

We are far from a pauper nation. We have the financial wherewithal to pay for the things we've signed on to buy - even though probably all of us have some problems with at least a few of those purchases - so we need to pay our bills, on time and without so much as a peep about the possibility of not doing it.

That said, the road map to this political paintball game is pretty much interchangeable with the state congressional district maps. Maryland's is a case in point. The political scene in Maryland has been dominated for all of my life by the Democratic party, but the Republican party has managed, from time to time, to field reasonably successful candidates for statewide office. That's because though the state, on the whole, can be relied on to vote for Democrats, there are places where Republicans rule the roost, notably Harford County, the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.

In the last round of congressional district mapping, however, the proposal enacted by the Democratic dominated state legislature successfully sought to minimize the influence of Republicans by including Democratic areas of Montgomery County in the Western Maryland 6th District, and shifting Republican strongholds in Baltimore and Carroll counties, along with most of Harford County, into the Eastern Shore 1st district.

To accomplish this, the 2nd District, which includes a segment of Harford County, sprawls southeast into Howard and Anne Arundel counties and west into the Randallstown area of Baltimore County. The 3rd, 8th and to some degree 7th Districts are likewise drawn in a rather sprawling way.

Known as Gerrymandering after it's creation by a lesser known founding father, Elbridge Gerry, drawing district lines for political gain is as old as the republic, and is a rather accepted practice. In Maryland, Republicans complain about it. In states where Republicans are able to use it to their advantage, the Democrats complain. In states where the balance of power shifts from one party to the other, the newly empowered party, eagerly uses its newfound power to draw lines in its own favor.

The main problem with the practice is it allows for a disproportionate number of one-party safe seats, and one single party domination tends to squelch debate, and eliminate the need for political compromise, two hallmarks of representative democracy.

Indeed, in recent years, compromise has become something of a political obscenity in certain circles on either end of the political spectrum.

One potential remedy would be for each state to elect all of its U.S. Representatives at large. In Maryland, this would mean each party would field eight candidates in the general election for a total of 16. Each voter could cast eight votes, similar to the way races are conducted for the municipal governments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

The eight candidates receiving the most votes would then become Maryland's delegation to the House of Representatives.

This proposal is filled with potential problems. In Maryland, and across the country, relatively few people can name their U.S. representative, so keeping track of a field of 16 at election time becomes a real challenge.

The problem grows exponentially in states like California, New York and Texas, which have 53, 27 and 36 representatives, respectively. Imagine a statewide race where everyone got to cast 53 votes in a field of 106 office seekers.

It's a mess and we have no one to blame but ourselves. We elected these people, or, worse yet, failed to vote at all. Riding around with a bumper sticker that says "Don't blame me, I voted for [fill in loser's name here]" doesn't absolve any of us of responsibility.

The only real solution is paying closer attention to the people we elect to office, not only at election time, but also throughout their terms. If we can keep up with the Kardashians, we should be able to do the same for the Cardins, the Harrises and the Ruppersbergers.

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