Year of nothing

Thinking back on 2013, it’s easy to believe that the past year will be remembered more for things that didn’t happen than for those that did.

It’s not that this was a slow news year. The Boston Marathon bombing, Pope Francis, the George Zimmerman trial, military drone strikes, National Security Agency surveillance, the government shutdown, and the Affordable Care Act rollout all grabbed international headlines. Locally, the downtown arena and school closures, among other issues, kept things hopping.

But when it comes to the many critical issues we face as a country, 2013 was the year nothing happened. Despite strong public support for tighter restrictions on gun sales in the wake of the December 2012 Newtown, Conn., school shooting, a bill requiring universal background checks went nowhere in Congress. Immigration? A comprehensive reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, yet was never put to a vote in the House. Global warming? At the end of yet another year of record temperatures, catastrophic storms, and growing consensus that climate change is a serious threat, the United States still has not made a firm commitment to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

What do these problems have in common? A Congress so dysfunctional that it hasn’t been able to pay the nation’s bills on time, let alone address contentious matters.

The 113th Congress has been one for the books, passing a historically low number of bills this year (57) and shutting down the government for two weeks in a pointless standoff over the Affordable Care Act that cost an estimated $24 billion. Congressional gridlock has stifled economic growth, delayed everything from routine judicial appointments to farm subsidies, and left many with the desperate sense that the two-party system is broken beyond repair.

Too often, the problem is portrayed as a partisan standoff in which both parties share blame. That’s nonsense. The gridlock is the result of deliberate action by Republican extremists who hail from gerrymandered districts so safely controlled by their party that their only worry is that someone will sponsor a GOP challenger in the next primary.

Throughout 2013, it became more and more clear that until we deal with gerrymandered congressional districts, gridlock will prevail. California voters provided a working model for change in 2008 when they attacked gerrymandering via the initiative process with a new law requiring that district boundaries be drawn by a nonpartisan citizens’ commission rather than legislators. It’s a reform that creates more diverse and competitive districts, rewards moderation and compromise over partisan extremism, produces more competitive elections, and ultimately reduces gridlock.

A number of bills have been introduced that would put in place a similar system for Congress, but they’ll never make it out of committee without vocal support from voters. As 2014 unfolds, all of us who want to see the federal government take action on critical issues need to work to push redistricting reform to the top of the agenda. We can’t afford another year where nothing happens in Congress.