Redistricting Reformers Renew Push

By Steve Kornacki
Published July 18th 2006 in Roll Call
When Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) introduced legislation aimed at depoliticizing the redistricting process, it was, not surprisingly, met with indifference from leaders of both parties.

But that was before the Supreme Court stepped in last month and largely upheld the mid-decade gerrymandering that Texas Republicans used to radically reshape the partisan makeup of their state's Congressional delegation. The political dust storm kicked up by that ruling has brought some new attention to the wonkish and typically publicity-starved issue of redistricting.

"Hopefully, this latest Supreme Court ruling opens the door for the Congress to take action," said Tanner, whose bill has so far attracted 47 co-sponsors, two of them Republicans. He also recently picked up a Senate supporter, Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who introduced companion legislation in his chamber.

"We have a Senate sponsor now, but I've always said the impetus for this has to come from outside of the Congress," Tanner said.

Tanner will be joined by an unusual collection of allies at a news conference today, an effort to gin up public support for a plan that would set national standards for how Congressional lines are drawn and ban tinkering between censuses. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), former Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill.), the national chairman of FairVote and a one-time presidential candidate, and Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union will call for Congress to take up Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act.

Under the Tanner plan, each state's Congressional boundaries would be redrawn once every 10 years - after the federal census - by an independent commission, which would be equally represented by appointees of Democratic and Republican state legislators. As a safeguard, panel members would be compelled to foreswear running for Congress for the entire time their map is in effect; additionally, anyone who has sought office or been employed by a political party in the four years before the census would be prohibited from serving on the redistricting committee.

Tanner's bill would make Iowa's current redistricting procedure - enacted in 1980 and generally lauded by good government-types for producing balanced, competitive districts - the national norm. The state commissions specifically would be instructed to not consider the partisan makeup of a district or its voting patterns. Lines also would be drawn without regard to where incumbents reside.

The legislature would have veto power, but if no plan were adopted by Nov. 1 of a redistricting year, the state's highest court would then choose one.

Reform proponents, Tanner included, see the ever-shrinking pool of competitive House districts as a prime culprit in Washington, D.C.'s partisan polarization: With primaries more important than general elections in many districts, ideological purity has been incentivized.

"If anyone thinks the country is divided now, let this go on for eight or 10 years, with one party getting control of a state legislature and then redistricting the other party out," Tanner argued.

House Republicans, the beneficiaries of the 2003 Texas remap, mostly have been silent on Tanner's plan and other calls for overhauling redistricting. And, even though they have angrily attacked the Texas case and the precedent it set, higher-ups in Tanner's own party haven't given him much help, either.

When the Supreme Court's ruling was handed down last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) did say that, "We should pass Democratic legislation to conduct nonpartisan redistricting and to bar mid-decade redistricting." But she has not signed on to or spoken up in favor of Tanner's bill.

Pelosi has thrown her support behind a different redistricting plan, introduced last year by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). But that bill, which primarily was backed by California Democrats, also has languished. It's widely believed that the plan was conceived simply to give political cover to Golden State Democrats, who pointed to it as a sign that they advocated reform even as they railed against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) own redistricting effort, which went down to defeat at the polls last fall.

"You're asking people to give up a lot of power," Tanner said. "But unless we can do this or something similar to it, the Congress is going to continue to engage in partisan warfare while the country's real problems continue to go unaddressed."