Thursday, October 20, 2005

Redistricting Watch: Q&A with Congressman John Tanner

In what I think is a Charging RINO first, I'm very pleased to offer a short question-answer session I've been conducting via email with Congressman John Tanner, who represents Tennessee's 8th District in the House of Representatives. Tanner, a centrist Democrat, is the main sponsor of the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, H.R. 2642, which would reform the way congressional districts are drawn by implementing an independent commission system in each state rather than the partisan processes we see in most states today.

Without further ado, let me get right to the questions. For more information on all things redistricting, see the list of links at the bottom of the page to my other posts on the topic.

JBD: Congressman Tanner, what prompted you to introduce the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act?

Tanner: Washington , which is now a one-party town with no real checks-and-balance, has become so politically polarized that Congress isn't able to perform its oversight responsibility adequately. A perfect example is another issue I'm passionate about - the out of control borrow-and-spend economic policies that have gone on here for years without any pushback from a Congress that is friendly to the Administration. The reason for the polarization, as some of us see it, is that the lack of competitive Congressional elections has led to an absence of the political center in this town. We have one side on the far right and one side on the far left, and very little voice for those Americans who are in the middle, which is, in my opinion, where most people would identify themselves ideologically. The solution is to fix the broken system to make elections more competitive instead of having seats that are drawn specifically for one party or another. Right now, an incumbent U.S. House Member has a 99% chance of being re-elected if he or she runs again. We like to joke that it's hard to give up that level of job security, but the people are really losing their voice in the way it's set up now. In other words, with modern computer technology, officeholders elect their constituents, rather than citizens electing their leaders.

JBD: For those just reading about this for the first time, can you give us a brief rundown of how your bill would change the redistricting process?


Tanner: Basically, we would take the politics out of the system. What we want to do is help each state establish an independent commission every 10 years to draw the Congressional maps after the census, based on such factors as geography, population and requirements set out in the Voting Rights Act - but not based on politics or political affiliation or voting history. The commission would be appointed in a bipartisan way. A commissioner could not have been recently involved with a political party and could not run for Congressional office in the state until after the next redistricting cycle, 10 years later. There are other things we spell out, but that's the jist of it.

JBD: Why is it important to only have a redistricting process once every decade?


Tanner
: Congressional district maps should be drawn right after census results are released every 10 years so the commission can get the most accurate statistical data with regards to equal representation and so on. But beyond that, there simply has to be more continuity in the process. It is impossible for me to believe that the people's best interest is being served by changing the Congressional map every time a new party is in charge, no matter if it's Republicans or Democrats in power. The political tide changes frequently, but it should be the voters who get to decide that and not the politicians already in power. One of the things I'm proud of is that this is not a Democratic or Republican bill - it's an American bill; it's the right thing to do no matter which party is in charge in
Washington or in any state capital.

JBD: Some people have expressed doubts about the constitutionality of your bill. How do you respond to those concerns? Isn't redistricting best left up to each state?

Tanner: The Congressional Research Service - that's the research arm of Congress - looked into that issue for us, and the electoral experts there assure us this is in accord with the states' responsibility to redraw Congressional maps and Congress' authority to set national elections. That comes from Article I, Section 4, of the Constitution. ["The times, places, and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators."] The House is a federal entity that should have some level of universal regulation. The most recent example is the Help America Vote Act that established minimum federal-election standards for state and local governments. That said, we do feel the substance of the redistricting process is best left up to the states. What we are suggesting is minimal national guidelines. It's a floor rather than a ceiling, just the basic structure of how to set up the process. The meat-and-potatoes of redistricting would still be up to those in the states, as it should be.

JBD: Your bill has attracted some 41 cosponsors so far. What's the game plan from here? Have any committee hearings been scheduled for consideration of the bill?


Tanner
: We are still talking to other Members, in the House and Senate, about coming on board with us. It's hard to find politicians who are willing to make their own jobs tougher to keep. As you know, we have bipartisan support, and this legislation is now an official position of the Blue Dog Coalition, of which I'm a member. But for this type of reform, the movement will have to come from outside the halls of Congress. To that end, we have gotten the endorsements of FairVote, Common Cause and Public Citizen. I think that is a good sign of how this reform plan will resonate with the people as they learn more and more about what's wrong and how we're trying to fix it.

JBD: What can we as citizens do to help push the bill along?


Tanner
: Contact your representatives and senators to talk to them about the bill. I know it's difficult to call up your House Member and say, "I want to make it easier to replace you," but putting it on their radars can help get them on board with us. But just as important is discussing this issue with people outside the Beltway. Like we talked about, that is where the real call for change will need to come from. I appreciate how you've been sharing the information with your readers, and that is the kind of grassroots momentum we need to keep up to make these reforms from the ground up. Our citizens need to reclaim the political process, which I believe has been hijacked by the present system
.

JBD: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer some questions on this issue. Please keep in touch and let us know how best we can assist in getting this bill through Congress.


Tanner:
Thank you. Keep up the good work you're doing to help bring some attention to this.

I think Tanner's got some great things to say here - I could not agree more with his view that this is an American issue, not a Democrat or Republican talking point. This affects everyone. Obviously I wasn't out to trip him up, and I'm not going to disguise the fact that I am a strong proponent of the bill. I make no claims whatsoever of objectivity, but I certainly appreciate the Congressman's efforts and his willingness to share his views.

Tanner's suggestion, that we contact our representatives, is a good one. I've found the best way to get contact information is through this site - just enter your ZIP and it will pull up the profiles of your House and Senate members with all their contact information. Call or fax a short letter to them at the numbers listed, and urge them to support H.R. 2642, the bipartisan Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (or, for your senators, urge them to sponsor companion legislation in that chamber). If you have any questions feel free to email me and I'll try to answer. This is a very important effort, and we should all do our part to make reform happen.

For more information, please see the posts below, or visit Rep. Tanner's resource page for H.R. 2642.

Previous Redistricting Watch posts:
- "Governator Goes to Ohio" (10/18)
- "Schwarzenegger Calls on McCain" (10/11)
- "Broder's Right" (9/1)
- "WaPo on Prop 77" (8/21)
- "Prop 77 Back On" (8/12)
- "Updates from the States" (8/10)
- "Updates on Several Fronts" (7/28)
- "Cosponsors Update" (7/22)
- "How Exactly do you Gerrymander a Birthday Cake?" (7/20)
- "Happy Birthday Mr. Gerry" (7/19)
- "Federal Authority in Historical Perspective" (7/16)
- "Blue Dogs, on the Scent" (7/12)
- "Cosponsors Update" (7/1)
- "Links, News, and Views" (6/24)
- "Polarization & Collegiality" (6/24)
- "Centrist Action on Redistricting Reform" (6/23)

3 Comments:

At 12:55 PM, Blogger "A Brown" said...

Congratulations on getting an interview. I’m impressed you’ve kept up this level of quality with school on. However, I’m not sure the Congressman has fully answered your questions.

For the Constitutionality of the bill, Rep. Tanner points to HAVA but that reform was built around the power of the purse strings, not the inherent power of Congress. It is still an open question if the Court would uphold this type of action. At a deeper level, I am still concerned that the reform will not go far enough. As long as we have a winner take all, single-member districts, we will have gerrymandering in some form. To really get rid of gerrymandering you need to reform the system at a fundamental level, such switching to multimember proportionally represented districts.

 
At 3:10 PM, Blogger pacatrue said...

Well done! I think the issue is summed up for me with this very nice line from the congressman, "In other words, with modern computer technology, officeholders elect their constituents, rather than citizens electing their leaders. "

I have always been a little wary of banning re-districting, because I always assumed the non-gerrymandered system would be based on geography and population size alone. This scares me because where I grew up in Louisiana, we could have a 40% African-American population, with a 0% African-American representation, because people always voted racially. But Tanner mentions following the Voting Rights Act on this, which makes me worry a little less.

 
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