In American politics, it is often difficult to see the forest for the trees. Two events in the past week have made the forest stand out in bold relief in a way that few could miss.
Last Thursday, House Republicans selected a new majority leader. The election of John Boehner underscores what some of us have been saying for months: control of the U.S. House is very much up for grabs in the 2006 elections.
Earlier in the week, the U.S. Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief in the ongoing Texas redistricting case. Their brief makes it very clear that this is the most politicized Justice Department since John Mitchell served as attorney general under President Richard Nixon.
Let’s look first at the implications of Boehner’s election. The fact that House Republicans rejected Tom DeLay’s handpicked successor, Roy Blunt, underscored the fact that the Republicans themselves know that they could lose control of the House in the next election.
House Republicans obviously felt that they needed to put some distance between themselves and the Abramoff scandal. When Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in federal court last month, it became clear that former DeLay staff members who were working for Abramoff were at the heart of the scandal. While no sitting member of the House has yet been indicted for dealings with Abramoff, press reports indicate that a half dozen Republican members of Congress and staff are currently under investigation.
Republicans currently have a very tenuous hold on the House of Representatives. Democrats need to pick up only 15 seats in the coming election to take control. While partisan redistricting has decreased the number of competitive House seats, 15 is a relatively small number out of 435 seats.
FEC reports filed at the end of January indicate that House Democrats are in a strong financial position to challenge Republican dominance. House Democrats are aided by historical trends (the party of the president almost always loses seats in the sixth year of an eight-year presidency), by the fact that there are more open Republican seats (no incumbent running for re-election) than open Democratic seats, and by the fact that a number of House Republicans currently sit in districts that President Bush lost in 2004.
And the Texas redistricting case, currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, could shift as many as four seats back to Democrats if the plan passed by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is struck down.
That brings us to the Justice Department’s “friend of the court” brief filed in the Texas case.
In what some consider a blatant political act, the Justice Department sided with the Texas Legislature and urged the court to uphold the Texas redistricting plan.
In so doing, the Justice Department argued for a judicial interpretation of the federal Voting Rights Act that could jeopardize 19 of the 41 Congressional seats currently held by African Americans.
The Justice Department argued that the Supreme Court should adopt an interpretation of the Voting Rights Act that permits a state legislature to dismantle a congressional district that is less than 50 percent African American even when African American voters are sufficient in number to determine the outcome of the election when working in coalition with other groups of voters. In other words, the only protected African American opportunity districts are those that meet a hard and fast numerical threshold of 50 percent African American voters.
The Texas Legislature had dismantled a coalition district (more than 50 percent combined African American and Hispanic voters) as a part of its partisan redistricting plan.
And who are we talking about among current African American Members of Congress around the country who currently hold seats that are less than 50 percent African American (though with a combined African American and Hispanic population exceeding 50 percent)? How about Charlie Rangel of New York, Maxine Waters of California, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Corrine Brown of Florida, Juanita Millender McDonald of California, Diane Watson of California and Al Green of Texas.
And then there is another group of African Americans representing districts that are less than 50 percent African American but who win through a coalition with white voters. These would also be jeopardized by the Justice Department’s reading of the law.
Who are these members? How about Sanford Bishop of Georgia, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, Julia Carson of Indiana, Lacy Clay of Missouri, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Barbara Lee of California, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, David Scott of Georgia and Mel Watt of North Carolina
Under the Justice “friend of the court” brief, state legislatures in all of these states could eliminate these current minority opportunity districts with impunity.
Every once in a while, the forest becomes very clear, no matter how tempting it is to just look at the trees.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.