George Washington was the first and last American president to be elected without being affiliated with a political party. In his farewell address to the nation prior to leaving office he warned of the dangers of political parties. According to Washington, a party system “serves to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration…agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies…kindles animosity of one …against another…and opens the door to …corruption.”
Two hundred and fourteen years later, these words still ring true in Washington, DC, in Jefferson City and in other state capitals. The partisan rancor predicted by Washington will be especially bitter with the drawing of new congressional districts, as happens every ten years following the federal census. Even before Washington assumed the presidency, the process of awarding seats in the House of Representatives was contentious. One need look no further than the absurd constitutional provision that counted slaves as three fifths of a person for purposes of representation in the House. Today, we still have the same heated competition among states for seats in Congress as existed back in Washington’s day. We also have the even fiercer competition between the two major political parties for seats.
This fight will be particularly acrimonious in Missouri if, as some experts predict, the state loses one of its nine seats in the House of Representatives. The General Assembly is theoretically supposed to draw districts that are equal in population, geographically compact, contiguous and respectful of the boundaries of political subdivisions. In fact, the overriding priority for most legislators will be to make sure their own party retains the seats it now holds; and the seat that is lost is taken away from the other party.
The last time Missouri faced a similar situation was after the 1980 census, which caused our number of seats in the House of Representatives to be reduced from ten to nine. What happened back then does not bode well for the present. After months and months of partisan squabbling, the General Assembly proved itself incapable of fulfilling its statutory duty of redrawing congressional districts. The Missouri Supreme Court finally stepped in and eliminated the eighth district, which was represented by Wendell Bailey from Willow Springs.
As might be expected, pundits and others criticized the Court for usurping a legislative function. There were also those who criticized the General Assembly and pointed out that the only reason the Supreme Court intervened and performed this legislative function was the Legislature’s failure to do what the law required of it.
The bad news is that naked partisanship is likely once again to dominate Missouri’s congressional redistricting process as much as it did 30 years ago. The good news is that our system has repeatedly proved that it’s strong enough to withstand the evils of which George Washington warned the nation in 1796.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.