Safe seats, sinecure breed partisan stalemate

Rep. Sensenbrenner

While the contests for president and the U.S. Senate seat from Wisconsin have been white hot, the election for the 5th Congressional seat has been a non-event.

The district has been mapped so expertly for Republican incumbent James Sensenbrenner that he has little opposition from the other party. He could probably win the seat if he passed away during the campaign.

He had no primary opponent, since the advantages of incumbency scare off qualified challengers. Sensenbrenner did have a primary challenge four years ago from a bright, young conservative, but beat him handily.

Over his 30-plus years in Congress, Sensenbrenner has had a few qualified Democratic opponents, but none have come close.

His hold on the seat says he is a perfect fit for the very red district. He is a doctrinaire conservative Republican who almost never parts from the GOP party line.
A Stanford University graduate and UW-Madison educated lawyer who inherited millions from the Kimberly-Clark fortunes, he rose to a position of power in the House as head of the Judiciary Committee. He did some good work there, but his hallmark was partisan attacks, such as leading the Clinton impeachment attempt.

“I have done more impeachments than anybody else in the history of the country,” he said after threatening current Attorney General Eric Holder over the “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking screw-up at the Mexican border.

Sensenbrenner managed the Senate trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. He also managed the impeachments of three federal judges. Clinton was acquitted after a five-week trial.

Think of Sensenbrenner as the pit bull of the GOP.

By his nature, he is dyspeptic and snappish, even with constituents visiting his congressional offices, even Republicans. That can happen after 34 years in a safe seat.
He is being opposed this year by Dave Heaster, an unknown from Brookfield. He’s been an IT worker at a number of regional companies. As a candidate, he has been invisible.

There has been virtually no coverage of the anemic contest. Sensenbrenner, therefore, has not had to mount a campaign. He did pen an op-ed in the local paper, expressing party-line opposition to Obamacare. Like his party-mates, he offered no solutions to the dual problems of soaring costs and the resulting lack of access to insurance.

Sensenbrenner holds regular listening sessions in the district, though he’s been curtailed of late by serious hip fractures from a trip and a fall. That would have curtailed his campaigning, had it been necessary.

With his seniority, Sensenbrenner should have a lot of clout in the House. But that’s not the case. His profile is low, far from the leadership ranks.
All in all, a very boring situation: a congressman who is virtually unaccountable.

There are a number of potential solutions to the safe seat partisanship: term limits (say, five two-year terms); a non-partisan commission to redistrict legislative seats at the state and federal level; more direct democracy where citizens set policy; and limits on the use of incumbent advantages, such as free mailings. None looks likely in the near term.

So we are left with a nasty, partisan divide in Congress, with deep roots in super-safe districts like the 5th. Safe incumbents have no need to compromise to win votes from independents or the other side of the aisle.

That uncompromising partisanship, in turn, leads to a paralysis on budgets, deficits, debt levels and major legislation.

All in all, a very frustrating situation.

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