This week the legislature’s bipartisan redistricting committee, which is constitutionally mandated to be equally divided between the parties, blew their second deadline. No one’s particularly surprised by this, and now the lines will be drawn by the state Supreme Court. It’s frankly amazing that the committee got as close as they did, considering the contentious history of redistricting in Connecticut. But in the end they couldn’t quite agree on the lines in a baker’s dozen of towns; so much for hopes of bipartisan harmony.
It was a noteworthy failure during a year of remarkable legislative success. In years past, the legislature has seemed more like an unmotivated slug than a lawmaking body, but 2011 was different. The legislature’s achievement list is long, from a controversial spending package to transgender rights to a jobs bill passed during September’s special session, and very surprising considering how moribund the legislature became during the latter years of the Rell administration. The major change? The House, Senate and governorship are all controlled by the same party for the first time in decades. Maybe divided government and bipartisanship isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Americans tend to like the idea of divided government and bipartisan cooperation. We often believe that having both parties in control of various branches of the government is more representative and forces compromise and moderation. It’s a lovely idea, and it speaks to some of our most fundamental beliefs about fairness, democracy and cooperation. We want to believe that reasonable representatives of the people with differing views and backgrounds can work together and compromise for the good of the nation, and our system is set up with this ideal in mind. That’s why, for instance, the redistricting process in Connecticut involves a committee equally divided between parties. The result is supposed to be more fair and equitable.
Sometimes divided government works well, and it can lead to crucial breakthroughs and reforms. Gov. William A. O’Neill, for example, got along very well with the Republicans who took brief control of the state legislature following the Reagan landslide in 1984. That legislature enacted tax cuts, got rid of the party lever on voting machines, and drastically reformed teacher salaries and the way education in Connecticut is funded. Divided government under President Bill Clinton in the mid to late 1990s was also surprisingly productive despite the intense animosity most Republicans felt for Clinton.
Clearly, therefore, bipartisan cooperation between divided branches of government can and has worked in the past, and will likely work again. But the merits of bipartisanship are still somewhat dubious. In Connecticut, the redistricting process more often than not ends up in a contentious court fight instead of bipartisan agreement. In the 1970s, the matter eventually went before the Supreme Court. The current Congress more than proves how difficult divided government can be, as well. It’s easy to get trapped in the tactics of blocking and postponing, hoping for the next election to swing your party’s way. This is what Democrats did when they held all or some of Congress under President George W. Bush, and Republicans are doing the same, magnified exponentially, now. In fact, because of the way our system tries to force compromise, Senate Republicans have been essentially doing this for President Obama’s entire term by filibustering when they could and blocking appointments. Our increasingly partisan politics makes the kind of compromise that makes our system function far more difficult under divided government.
The big drawback, or maybe the greatest strength, of our system is the expectation that at some point we’ll put down our differences and work together. In the case of the redistricting committee, they almost made it. But in the end they couldn’t quite get there, and they punted. Congress is doing the same thing on issue after issue.
So what’s the solution to gridlock and partisan dysfunction? Redistricting, once it’s out of the hands of the partisans, might be part of a solution. More competitive districts tend to produce less partisan representatives. Another solution might be found at the ballot box next election season. Republicans might find that voters don’t appreciate the kinds of tactics they’re using and punish them for it, as they did during the farce of the Clinton impeachment trial. Extended rule by a single party, such as is the case in countries with parliamentary systems, doesn’t feel particular comfortable to Americans. But if the current problems persist, we may decide that stability is worth temporarily giving up on the ideal of a divided, cooperative government.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.