No shutdown heroes or winners

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, October 5, 2013

Democrats think they held the line in defending historic public health care legislation even at the cost of shutting the government down. Republicans believe they fought the good fight in trying to defund, delay or repeal the very same legislation — the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” — and embraced the same belief that a shutdown was preferable to compromise.

The public, however split they might be on their opinions on Obamacare, sees the government shutdown as yet another example of partisanship run amok on Capitol Hill and of a Congress that spends more time posturing than legislating.

Mired in dysfunction and gridlock, Congress as an institution is broken. But that institution didn’t break overnight. It is a product of decades of social engineering and experimentation.

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In the depths of the bad old days of civil rights atrocities, the belief was strong that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would create a government that looked more like America and that would reflect broader and more diverse views.

While much of those noble goals were indeed realized, there were unintended consequences. The Voting Rights Act produced congressional redistricting plans that created “safe” districts for African-American candidates — overwhelmingly Democratic candidates — and thus began the political realities that frame the political standoff in Washington.

In order to create “safe” districts for African American Democrats — in which black voting age populations or BVAPs were inflated to overwhelming majorities — the result was in many states that similar districts were created that provide the same level of political “safety” for mostly white conservative Republicans.

The best examples in Mississippi are the state’s Second Congressional District, which provides a safe political haven for veteran U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton. Thompson’s personal political skills aside, the district makes it virtually impossible for a Republican to challenge Thompson and it also makes Thompson intensely loyal to his Democratic political base.

Should Thompson move to more centrist or conservative positions, the only real political danger he faces is competition from an even more dogmatic, liberal Democrat in a party primary. Thompson, like the late Jamie Whitten, John Stennis and Jim Eastland before him, has reached the status in Mississippi politics that he’s likely untouchable by a challenger from either party.

But if he faces any danger, it’s from straying to the center or to the right of his constituents and compromising on issues that would make him vulnerable to a Democratic primary challenge.

The same is true for Mississippi’s GOP congressional delegation. For every “safe” Democratic district like Thompson’s, most states have one or two “safe” Republican districts like Mississippi’s Third Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, represents the Third District in Congress. Harper has withstood quality Democratic Party opposition and has cruised to re-election. Because of the makeup of the district, Harper is like Thompson “safe” from a challenge outside his party.

Harper’s only vulnerability would be to drift to the center or the left of his own party and thereby draw a more conservative Republican primary opponent.  The political phenomenon even has a name — it’s called getting “primaried.”

The reality of decades of gerrymandered districts to achieve racial balance has had the unintended consequence of putting members in districts that make it difficult if not impossible to compromise. And that isn’t true simply in Mississippi, it’s all over the country.

When significant blocs of Congress are politically hamstrung from compromise and must maintain strict partisan discipline or risk defeat, it leaves little room for compromise or problem-solving.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or