Incumbent entitlement

September 05, 2005

MEMBERS of Congress are just concluding a five-week summer recess euphemistically titled a "district work period." But only the most dedicated and most insecure burned a lot of shoe leather bounding from barbecues to ice cream socials and vying for attention with Elvis impersonators at senior sock hops.

Indeed, Democrats and Republicans in California's delegation joined forces instead in a fierce campaign to protect a redistricting process that makes such voter contact superfluous.

They're waging a cynical battle for political insulation from their constituents that would make an old-style machine boss blush.

They richly deserve to lose.

California voters are being asked in a referendum this fall to reject the long-standing, nearly nationwide practice of allowing incumbent legislators to shape the election districts from which they run.

Particularly with the application of modern technology, remapping has become more science than politics, creating districts so safe for one party or the other that competition is virtually eliminated.

To bust up this cozy arrangement, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is backing a ballot initiative that will ask voters in November to take redistricting power away from lawmakers and give it to a panel of retired judges charged with relying on geography and community borders instead of party registration.

Not surprisingly, odds are against the Republican governor. He's moving too fast - trying to put the change in place by next year to break the Democrats' hold on the legislature. He's been too clumsy - differently worded versions of the initiative circulated during the petition drive. And the Federal Election Commission, another arm of the incumbents' machine, is allowing members of Congress to spend unlimited amounts to defeat the ballot question.

Even so, we're rooting for the Terminator.

Here's an irony: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, of the Texas redistricting fiasco, was home on the hustings in August again after many years because he gave away too much safe turf in order to knock off some Democrats last year. There was also the nasty business of ethics rebukes by his colleagues, his own redistricting shenanigans, and maybe some other shoes that haven't yet dropped.

Mr. DeLay might simply be seeking a quick repair job on his image. But for his constituents, those Rotary Club luncheons and Labor Day parades are part of the connection that keeps members of Congress attuned to the needs and desires of the people they represent.

Getting about in the district is a good thing for democracy - Elvis impersonators notwithstanding. With deep-pocketed special interests so dominant in Washington, lawmakers must be frequently reminded whom they work for.

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