In the 1780s, Patrick Henry tried to shape Virginia’s House district lines to block James Madison from serving in the first U.S. Congress. The grudge between the two men: Henry opposed the U.S. Constitution freshly written primarily by Madison. The gambit failed and Madison won his seat. More than two centuries later, the politics of redistricting still are shaping Congress. A majority of Americans disapprove of the Republicans in Congress, yet the odds remain in the party’s favor that it will retain control of the House. One big reason the Republicans have this edge: their district boundaries are drawn so carefully that the only votes that often matter come from fellow Republicans. The 2010 elections, in which Republicans won the House majority and gained more than 700 state legislative seatsacross the nation, gave the party the upper-hand in the process of redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional seats. The advantage helped them design safer partisan districts and maintain their House majority in 2012 — even as they lost the presidential race by about 5 million votes. Also nationwide, Democratic House candidates combined to win about 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
“The Republican-created maps in most states set up a sort of seawall,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “As the decade goes on, people do shift party allegiances and move in and out of town, and so the effects erode a little bit, but it’s still a seawall and it’s still keeping some of the flood of 2010 in,” Levitt said. The election results mean House Republicans will have the power to block or demand amendments to President Barack Obama’s agenda.
That tension will be on display during the deficit reduction talks in coming months as Obama advocates a combination of spending cuts and new revenues. That position was favored by 67 percent of Americans in a CNN/Orc International poll conducted Nov. 16, two weeks after voters re-elected Obama. Republican House members last week unveiled a budget that would eliminate the deficit in 10 years by cutting $4.6 trillion and using no newtax revenue.
It’s a predicament presidents previously have faced. Before Obama, five of the last six elected presidents –Democrats and Republicans — had a House controlled by the opposition party at some point during their tenure. President Jimmy Carter was the one who didn’t.