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Where it's lonely in the middle

The U.S. House of Representatives is becoming less and less representative, and both major parties are to blame. Although the American electorate is basically moderate, House members _ especially those in positions of leadership _ increasingly are clustered on the left-wing and right-wing fringes.

That politically unhealthy trend continued last week when Rep. Nancy Pelosi, one of the House's most liberal members, became the Democrats' leader and Rep. Tom DeLay _ the pugnacious conservative known as "The Hammer" _ rose to House majority leader. Despite their new titles, neither the very liberal woman from San Francisco nor the very conservative man from Sugar Land, Texas, is truly representative of the political views of more than a sliver of our voting population.

How did the House become so unrepresentative? Much of the blame can be traced to partisan gerrymandering. Incumbents in both parties have a mutual interest in creating "safe" congressional districts for themselves. That means lines often are manipulated to cluster as many Republicans as possible in some districts and as many Democrats as possible in others. As a result, most congressional candidates can pander to the party faithful without having to bother appealing to voters across the political spectrum. While all 435 House seats were nominally up for election in November, only about three dozen races nationally were truly competitive.

Another factor contributes to the rise of political extremists in the House. Pelosi and DeLay have little in common politically, but they both have earned reputations as prodigious fundraisers for their respective parties. Most of the big money in politics comes from special-interest groups and hard-line partisans who have no interest in supporting consensus-builders. Instead, they want politicians who will reliably parrot their views.

Pelosi and DeLay may be successful at the jobs they were chosen to do. They both know how to count votes and raise money _ and they each make convenient targets for the other side's fundraising campaigns. But, like most of the House members who chose them as leaders, they won't truly represent the interests of voters who are looking for bipartisan solutions instead of partisan posturing.