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Editorial: The real reason we’re at the cliff’s edge

House Speaker John Boehner Ohio arrives White House WashingtFriday Dec. 28 2012 for meeting between President Barack ObamCongressional leaders negotiate

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio arrives at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, for a meeting between President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders to negotiate the framework for a deal on the fiscal cliff. The negotiations are a last ditch effort to avoid across-the-board first of the year tax increases and deep spending cuts. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:39AM

When the tail wags the dog, the tail has to go.

The only reason our nation is about to plummet over the edge of a fiscal abyss is because a handful of Republican congressmen, a mere 20 or so, refuse to budge on tax increases, not even for millionaires. House Speaker John Boehner is loath to put forward legislation averting the fiscal cliff that does not have the majority support of his own Republican Party, for which he would need most of those 20 votes, and so he effectively has allowed a small minority of his own caucus to hold the entire legislative process hostage — the tail wags the dog.

How did that happen, and how do we cut the tail?

Our polarized House of Representatives is less a reflection of a polarized country — we may not be quite so far apart — than of a gerrymandered electoral map that encourages ever more partisanship and extremism. In the short run — that is to say in the next two days — the only solution would be for Boehner to abandon the old “Hastert Rule,” under which legislation gets called to a vote only if the majority of the ruling party in the House wants it passed, and put forth a bipartisan plan that can prevail even as the no-tax zealots howl.

Not that we believe Boehner will do this. He would have to put his nation’s interests above his party’s interests.

When the no-tax absolutists refuse to entertain a tax hike even on a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, it’s important to understand that they are motivated less by ideology than by self-interest. They want to get re-elected.

As Nate Silver reported Friday in the New York Times, a growing number of congressmen, especially Republicans, represent hyperpartisan districts in which they face essentially no threat of losing their seats to the other party. Instead, primary challenges are the real risk, encouraging a no-compromise ideological purity.

The grease that once made bipartisan policy-making the norm was a larger number of representatives from districts that were neither overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic. Swing district legislators had a vested interest in compromise.

In 1992, Silver reports, 103 members of the House were elected from swing districts, defined as those in which the margin in the presidential race was within 5 percentage points of the national result. Today, only 35 congressmen represent swing districts.

Instead, Silver says, the number of landslide districts — those in which the presidential vote margin deviated by at least 20 point from the national result — roughly doubled. While there were only 123 such districts in 1992, there are 242 today.

Gerrymandering, the process by which state legislatures redraw congressional district boundaries to favor the state’s ruling party, is eagerly pursued by both Democrats and Republicans. Illinois Democrats did their best in 2011 to gerrymander Republican districts in Illinois down to a scorned and pathetic few. But on the national level, it is the Republicans who have benefited most from gerrymandering. As we reported in November, Republicans will outnumber Democrats 234 to 201 in the new Congress, but Democratic congressman actually got more votes — 53.6 million to 53.4 million. The House is out of whack, in favor of the GOP

Little surprise, then, that a strong majority of Americans favor a tax increase as part of the solution to avoiding going over the fiscal cliff, according to several polls, even as House Republicans pretend to get the heebie-jeebies at the mere mention of a tax hike.

And all the more reason the American people will rightly blame the Republican Party, especially in the House, if a bipartisan deal on tax increases and spending cuts can’t be reached before the nation sails off the fiscal cliff, forcing tax hikes for everybody.

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